Early in 2000, I played with Hal Sutton on the Saturday of what is now the Northern Trust Open. Each of us was positioned to win at Riviera. Paired with Tiger Woods the first two days, Hal had shot rounds of 69–67 while Tiger shot 68–70. Walking down the 8th fairway that day, I asked Hal what it had been like playing with Woods. His response was surprising, and less then two months later, it would prove prescient.
In the last 12 events that Tiger had played in 1999 he'd won eight times, and already in 2000 he'd won the Tournament of Champions and the AT&T at Pebble Beach, where his ridiculous seven-shot Sunday comeback is still a highlight of his long highlight reel. Golf had never seen anything like what Tiger was doing (or what he was about to do), and while the public was stupefied, many of his peers, judging by their comments, were becoming psychologically emasculated.
Hal told me that someone had asked him why he was excited about his play if he wasn't leading the tournament. “They don't get it!” he said, “Whether I'm leading doesn't matter. What matters is that I sent a message to me and to [Tiger] that I can handle his presence. And that I can beat him. And I know it, and he knows it.” As an exclamation point, Hal added: “Some Sunday, somewhere, that will matter.” That day, as it turned out, wasn't far off.
On March 25, 2000, after three consecutive rounds of 69 at the Players, Hal had a one-shot lead over, you guessed it, Tiger Woods. Sitting in the press room that Saturday night Hal was, for the third straight day, asked about Tiger's dominance and, for the first time, if he had concerns about being paired with Woods. At 41, Sutton had won 11 times; Tiger had won 11 times in his last 15 events.
Hal said he didn't understand the continual praising of Woods by his peers; that in praising him, “you have just said he is better than you.” He alluded to his two days with Tiger at Riviera and how those obscure rounds meant everything to him. “The only advantage Tiger has got tomorrow is that he is a lot younger than I am,” Sutton added.
On Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, Tiger pulled even with a birdie at the 1st hole, but Sutton didn't falter. Except for the 8th hole, where he saved par, he didn't miss a green, and he was bogey-free through 12. His lead swelled to three shots, but a thunderstorm swept in and stopped play, necessitating a Monday finish.
Again on Sunday night, Hal was asked about Tiger. Hal said, “I was lying in bed, and I said, You know what? I'm not praying to him. He's not a god. He's human just like I am, so we can do this!” On Monday, Tiger didn't look human. After a bogey at 12, he birdied 13 and eagled 16 to get within one. On Saturday, Sutton had hit his ball into the water at 17 and made bogey, but on Monday he found the green and matched Tiger's par.
At 18 Tiger missed the green with his approach, and what happened next, the scene of Sutton playing from the fairway, has become one of the most famous of the Woods era. There's Hal, puffy hat, short, pistonlike motion, anxious look on his face as he watches the ball and then utters the words that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: “Be the right club to-DAY!” It was. The ball stopped eight feet from the hole. Hal had stood up under the heat, and I realized I'd known all along that he would. He'd been preparing for that shot for weeks.