Open and Shut
This story on Tiger Woods' win at the 2000 U.S. Open first appeared in the June 26, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Tiger Woods sees the world in narrow focus. Ball. Target. The space between. ESPN's Chris Berman walked up to him as Woods was hitting balls on the Pebble Beach practice range last Saturday, before the delayed start of the third round of the 100th U.S. Open, and tried to arrange an on-camera chat. Woods politely brushed him off. NBC course reporter Roger Maltbie asked Woods if he would take part in a preround interview. Woods said no. "They pay me the big bucks to ask you," Maltbie said with a smile.
Woods's expression said, They pay me the bigger bucks to say no.
Woods sees himself as an icon, one for the ages. That was evident in the stone-cold way that he went about winning his first U.S. Open and third major title, with the most dominating four-round performance in the history of major-championship golf. His winning margin was 15 strokes -- two better than the record for a major set by Old Tom Morris at the 1862 British Open against a field of about a dozen -- and his manner of winning was intimidating. Woods hit longer, straighter drives than anyone else. He flew iron shots that held on Pebble's small, firm greens. He never three-putted. This made even the most accomplished players look uncomfortable and unworthy. "Tiger has raised the bar," said Tom Watson, who won his only U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, "and it seems that he's the only guy who can jump over that bar."
That Tiger has raised his own standard by so much, while already the No. 1 golfer in the world, was the biggest revelation of this millennial Open. The extreme conditions of the layouts in past U.S. Opens have always exposed the holes in Woods's game. He was either a little too wild off the tee or lacked distance control from the fairway or didn't have a steady touch with the putter. But through his ceaseless work with his swing coach, Butch Harmon, he has mastered every shot in his deep arsenal.
If the goal is to beat the entire golf world into submission, Woods is practically there. In the last two years he has refined his game, and now he is the world's best driver of the ball, its best iron player, best chipper and best putter. But above all he is the game's most focused player. The week before the Open, he spent three days in Las Vegas with Harmon, and part of his preparation on the driving range at Rio Secco Golf Club involved simulating all the shots he would need at Pebble Beach. "We really didn't have to fix anything in Tiger's swing," said Harmon. "We just had to shape some shots, curve the ball a bit differently for some of the holes out there."
Still Tiger was not satisfied. On the eve of the Open, he spent extra time on the practice green at Pebble Beach even though he was putting superbly. "I didn't like the way I was rolling the ball," he said after his first-round 65, during which he needed just 24 putts. "I was making quite a few putts in practice rounds, but the ball wasn't turning over the way I would like to see it roll. I worked on it for a couple of hours and found that my posture was a little off. My release wasn't quite right." For the championship he took a total of only 110 putts, tied for sixth-best in the field.
His work ethic was the source of some controversy the day before the tournament when he skipped a ceremony honoring the late Payne Stewart, last year's Open champion, and instead chose to play a scheduled practice round. To those who criticized him for that decision he replied, "I felt going [to the ceremony] would be more of a deterrent for me during the tournament, because I don't want to be thinking about it." So much for sentiment in the march of history.
No less an authority on athletic intensity than NHL coach Scotty Bowman, who has won eight Stanley Cups, marveled at the single-mindedness of Woods's focus. Bowman walked the course with Tiger's twosome on Sunday as a USGA scorer and said, "His eye contact is right with his caddie and nowhere else when he's preparing to hit a shot. He's oblivious to everyone else."
The pursuit of perfection can be lonely, but in Woods's case it is not without passion. Even with a commanding seven-stroke lead on Saturday morning, when he hit his tee shot onto the rocks left of the 18th fairway, a microphone caught his sulfuric response. "I got a little angry and let the emotion get the better of me," he said later.
That fire was unquenchable even as he waltzed to victory. When the sun went down on the Monterey Peninsula on Sunday night, he held tournament records for the largest lead after 36 holes (six strokes), lowest 36-hole score (134, tied with Jack Nicklaus, T.C. Chen and Lee Janzen), largest 54-hole lead (10), lowest 72-hole score (272, tied with Nicklaus and Janzen), most strokes under par (12, tied with Gil Morgan, who reached that total in the third round in 1992, only to collapse and finish tied for 13th) and, of course, largest margin of victory.
Woods seemed merely to toy with and tease the Open field. In meddlesome third-round winds he made a triple bogey and a bogey on the front nine but still produced enough birdies to make the turn in par 35 and stretch his lead from six strokes to nine. Buried in a dense nest of grass atop the lip of a fairway bunker on the par-5 6th hole on Saturday, Woods still made birdie by punching his approach to 10 feet. Woods made practically every par-saving putt over four days, even the 15-footers. "He's playing every shot like his life depends on it," said Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, who played with Woods on Saturday.
By the time USGA president Trey Holland handed Woods the Championship Cup on Sunday afternoon, any doofus who still questions whether Woods is the world's best golfer was left to ponder these facts: Woods, at 24, has won a Masters by 12 strokes, a U.S. Open by 15 and a PGA Championship by a whisker. When he wins the British Open at St. Andrews in July, he will become just the fifth player -- and the youngest by two years -- to win all four majors. ("If he doesn't win the British Open," said recently retired Royal and Ancient secretary Sir Michael Bonallack, "there should be a steward's inquiry.") And just to numb you with numbers, Woods has won 12 of his last 21 PGA Tour starts and this year has pocketed almost $5 million in prize money. "We always felt someone would come along who could drive the ball 300 yards and putt like Ben Crenshaw," Nick Price said after his round on Sunday. "This guy drives the ball farther than anybody I've ever seen and putts better than Crenshaw. He's a phenomenon."
The only brief insult to Woods's dignity came on the third hole of the third round, when he needed three swings from the greenside rough to get his ball onto the putting surface. The triple bogey so devastated Woods that he took, oh, 60 minutes to get his lead back to where it was. In the end he was light-years ahead of the runners-up, Ernie Els, the two-time U.S. Open champ from South Africa, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the Ryder Cupper from Spain.
So you had to wonder why Tiger was the guy spewing profanity on Saturday morning, when America's tots and toddlers were gathering to watch cartoons. Wasn't it the rest of the field that should have been swearing like Long John Silver? The Duvals, Mickelsons and Singhs? They, not Tiger, were the ones who couldn't handle Pebble's thick rough, rock-hard greens and fickle sea winds. Colin Montgomerie finished the tournament at 15 over par, and when he was told he was leading the statistical category of fairways hit, he shot back, "That's great. They should put the hole in the fairways."
Some of the crankiness could be attributed to sleep deprivation. On Thursday afternoon the Monterey fog rolled over the course like a blanket pulled up to the chin, forcing a midafternoon suspension of play. That left Tiger in the lead with a six-under-par 65 and 75 players with 4 a.m. wake-up calls. More fog on Friday morning forced further delays, so Round 2 leaked into Saturday morning and Round 3 dragged on till Saturday dusk. Woods, despite his morning drive onto the rocks, signed for a second-round 69 and took a six-stroke lead over Bjorn and Jimenez. He then retired to his room for a nap. It was a week of naps.
It was also a week of goodbyes. Besides the touching salute to Stewart, whose death in a plane crash last October kept him from defending the Open title he had won so dramatically a year ago at Pinehurst, there was the farewell to four-time U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus. Playing his 44th and final Open, on the course where in 1961 he won his second U.S. Amateur and in '72 his third U.S. Open, Nicklaus shot 73-82 and missed the cut.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
The rest of the Open belonged to Woods. You had Tiger making a 30-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole to close out play at dusk on Friday.... Tiger hitting the ball on the rocks at 18 and turning the air blue.... Tiger making his triple on number 3 without uttering a peep.... Tiger smiling and shaking his head after his miracle shot from the bunker lip at 6. You had Tiger, and, come to think of it, that's about all you had. When he teed off on Sunday afternoon, Woods enjoyed a 10-stroke lead and NBC had a television first: a 6 1/2-hour telecast of exhibition golf. (Still the overnight ratings were up a glittering 11% from a year ago, further testament to Woods's popularity.)
Tiger reported to the 1st tee in a blood-red victory shirt and then bled off any possible drama by making nine consecutive pars in placid, sunny conditions. It wasn't until the back nine that he made his play for history. Woods birdied 10, 12, 13 and 14, taking his score to 12 under. On number 15 he flashed a desperate grimace over a perfectly decent tee shot that landed in the first cut of rough -- a clear indication that he wanted to break records. Padraig Harrington, the Ryder Cupper from Ireland, said he paid no attention to what Woods was doing until he finished his own round. "But afterward," he admitted, "I looked at the scoreboard in total wonderment."
The microphones were still open when Woods stepped onto the 18th tee, but this time they picked up nothing but the solid click of his safe four-iron shot to the fairway. At the green he two-putted for par and a record-tying 272, hugged the principals, waved to the crowd and slipped three cigars out of his pocket, handing them to his girlfriend, Joanna Jagoda. Notably absent on Father's Day was his father, Earl Woods, who watched the tournament by himself at his home in Cypress, Calif. "The reason I didn't come up was that I wanted to give him the space to perform and be himself," Earl said. "It's all part of the plan."
His son had fogged the field on Thursday and strolled home in sunshine on Sunday, and by the time he was finished virtually no one was prepared to say that Nicklaus, Watson, Bobby Jones or anyone was in his league. The ultimate compliment came from the novelist and longtime golf writer Dan Jenkins, chronicler of the water-to-wine miracles of Ben Hogan. After watching Woods shoot four straight rounds of par or better on a course that had yielded only 32 subpar rounds by others, Jenkins said, "I saw him do things this week that I never saw Hogan do."
Hogan, of course, didn't approach perfection until he was in his late 30s. Tiger Woods has 22 more majors to compete in before he turns 30. Don't think that he doesn't know it.
Issue date: June 26, 2000