Tiger Woods rapped in one last putt, the final stroke of his U.S. Open masterpiece at Pebble Beach. No one had ever been more dominant in 140 years of major championship golf. Those who played with him that week doubt anyone will see such a performance again.
The scoreboard behind the 18th green stood as a monument. Fans didn’t just look at it. They were transfixed by it.
Next to Woods’ name at the top was a row of red numbers that stretched across the holes until it ended at 12 under. The rest of the white board was filled with black numbers: Everyone else was over par, no one within 15 shots.
His swing coach, Butch Harmon, was in the TV tower for British-based Sky Sports and rushed down to congratulate Woods. Standing on the green, Harmon overheard Miguel Angel Jimenez, who shared second place with Ernie Els, say to a USGA official in his heavy Spanish accent, “Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me where the playoff starts for the other tournament between me and Ernie?”
That’s what it felt like 10 years ago at the U.S. Open – two tournaments.
Woods might as well have been playing alone.
In a major billed as the toughest test in golf, Woods went 22 holes without a bogey to start the championship and 26 holes without a bogey at the end. No one had ever finished a U.S. Open in double digits under par. His 15-shot margin was the widest ever in a major, breaking a record that had been set in 1862.
“At that moment in time, we thought we saw some of the best golf we’ll ever see by any player,” Thomas Bjorn said.
Bjorn, who played with Woods in the third round that week, was among a dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press who practiced, competed or walked alongside Woods in the days leading up to his landmark victory at Pebble Beach.
Woods stopped to see Harmon in Las Vegas on his way to Pebble Beach. He played that Sunday at Rio Secco with one of Harmon’s newest pupils, a 19-year-old Australian named Adam Scott, who did not qualify for the Open and planned to turn pro the following week.
In 25 mph wind, Woods set the course record with a 63.
“He did things that I didn’t know you could do on the golf course,” Scott said. “I’m glad he won the U.S. Open by 15 the next week. Because if he didn’t and played like that, I don’t think I would have turned pro. I said to Butch, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ What I saw was pretty amazing.”
Harmon didn’t play, but he accompanied them.
“Everyone on my staff ran down to the casino and bet on him,” Harmon said. “We didn’t get great odds, obviously, but it was as good of a lock as I’ve ever seen.”
Woods and Mark O’Meara, played the previous week at Isleworth, their home course in Orlando, Fla., and practiced together all three rounds at Pebble Beach. O’Meara was his usual practice partner at the majors. He had seen it all. This was different.
“He hit every shot just perfect. He never missed a shot,” O’Meara said. “He seemed calm, he seemed relaxed and he seemed in control Those were the three things that were different about him.”
John Cook, another close friend from Isleworth, arrived from the Buick Classic and joined them for the final two practice rounds.
“He was in the middle of a pretty special time,” Cook said. “You could see his confidence building and building. Tuesday and Wednesday were so flawless in preparation and attitude. Everything was in sync. Every shot was the perfect trajectory.”
NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller followed them for a couple of holes on Wednesday and asked how Woods was playing.
“I said, ‘Nobody is going to beat him. Nobody is going to beat him for a long time,'” Cook said. “With the exception of one or two holes, it probably was the most flawless major championship ever.”
O’Meara made a similar prediction driving to dinner with his wife.
“She said, ‘How are you playing?'” O’Meara recalled. “I said, ‘I’m playing all right, but it doesn’t really matter. The tournament is already over.’ She said, ‘How can you say that?’ I said, ‘Tiger is going to win. And not only is he going to win, he’s going to blow away the field.’ I don’t know how he couldn’t. He’s playing well. He loves the course. And he proved me right.”
No coach saw more of Woods that week than Hank Haney, who was working with O’Meara but whom Woods hired four years later. He was not amazed by how Woods was hitting the ball because it was like that the previous week at Isleworth.
“It was one of those special putting weeks, and you don’t see that coming in practice,” Haney said. “You never see a guy get done in a practice round and say, ‘This guy is making everything.’ Because they don’t even putt toward the hole.”
Steve Williams began working as Woods’ caddie in March 1999, and they won their first major together at the PGA Championship that year. This was their sixth major, yet the preparations were vastly different in one area – putting.
“Tiger spent an unusually longer amount of time practicing putts inside 10 feet than he would normally do,” Williams said. “When the greens are fast and bumpy, it’s difficult to chip it close. On the Wednesday night we were out there putting with the lights on, in the dark, trying to get a key, trying to dial in something that would help.
“Obviously, he found a key. He started hitting the putts a little more up on the ball to get it rolling. It’s not an uncommon thing, but it’s something you would never think about if the greens are pure.”
Paul Goydos qualified for the U.S. Open by finishing in the top 15 the previous year. When he registered Monday morning, he saw the sign-up sheet for practice rounds. First off Wednesday morning was Woods, Mark O’Meara, John Cook and TBA.
“To be announced,” Goydos said. “I said, ‘Boys and girls, attention! We’re announcing who’s playing. I am.’ I wrote my name in.”
What a treat that turned out to be.
“He seemed as unconcerned with life as anyone I had ever seen on the golf course the day before a U.S. Open,” Goydos said. “We’re all hitting 20 chips and putting to all these spots, and he would hit a shot into the fairway, knock it on the green, hit a few putts and sit there and talk to Butch. It’s almost like he was saying to Butch, ‘Look at these idiots.’
“It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to win.’ But he had it all figured out.”
When they finished the round, two reporters were waiting to speak to Goydos.
“I had never seen a display of golf like that in my life,” Goydos said. “He’s going to win by 10. That’s what I said to these reporters. That tournament ended on Tuesday. The only thing he had to do was stay upright. There was just no question. If I could gamble, I would have bet everything I had. I saw a 10-shot victory. And I was wrong.”
Of all the holes Woods played in practice, Wednesday at the par-3 12th was what got everyone’s attention. The green was brick hard, typical of a U.S. Open. There was no way to get it anywhere near the hole, much less keep it on the green. Or so they thought.
“We were on the 12th tee, the pin was back right. He hit a 4-iron, this high cut about a yard-and-a-half that never left the flag and stopped about 5 feet away,” O’Meara said. “Butch said, ‘Good swing.’ And I said, ‘Really? Now I know why you’re such a great teacher. What was your first clue, that he hasn’t missed a shot all day?’ We were needling each other pretty good.”
Cook’s son was caddying for him that week and he recalled the teenager’s reaction as much as the shot.
“He hits this towering 4-iron, and this thing would have landed on the hood of your car and stopped,” Cook said. “We all looked at each other. My son Jason, who was 14, had his mouth open and his eyes real big. I said, ‘That’s a golf swing.'”
Goydos hit 4-iron about as flush as he could, as high as he could, then watched it bounce over a green he described as a trampoline.
“Tiger hits this shot over the moon, flies the bunker and stops this far,” he said, holding his hands about 5 feet apart. “I said, ‘What did you hit there?’ He said, ‘4-iron.’ So that’s a little disappointing.
“We get to 18 and I drove it down the left side, had about 233 to the front and hit 3-wood. Tiger hit the ball a little farther right and he was about 5 yards ahead of me. He hits this shot – WHOOOSH! – like a rocket. I said, ‘What did you hit?’ He said, ‘4-iron.’ And I said, ‘Boys, this tournament is over.’ Because if you can hit a 4-iron 195 yards in the air and 225 yards in the air when you want, this tournament is OVER.”
Woods played the opening two rounds with Jim Furyk and Jesper Parnevik, in conditions so foggy that the first round Thursday eventually was suspended with 75 players yet to finish. Woods teed off in the morning and shot a bogey-free 65, the lowest score ever at Pebble Beach in a U.S. Open.
“He had complete control as far as drawing the ball, cutting the ball, hitting it high, hitting it low. Whatever the shot called for, he seemed to be hitting it right at the pin,” Furyk said. “I just remember him rolling in 8-footers and 12-footers. Pebble Beach isn’t the smoothest surface, and these 8-footers were going in with perfect speed. I was just shaking my head.”
Parnevik was doing more than that. He was laughing.
“It almost became a joke,” Parnevik said. “We could not figure out if he ever missed a putt from inside 20 feet. And you know how Pebble Beach greens can be. I remember we were on the 12th hole Friday. We got called off because of darkness. Tiger had about a 40-footer and he decided to keep going and not leave it until the morning. And he holed it. If you watch the highlight reels, you can see me and Lance (Ten Broeck, his caddie) laughing. It was incredible.
“I don’t know if he’s ever played that well,” he said. “It was special to be there.”
Returning to the 13th hole Saturday morning to complete the second round, Steve Williams reached into the bag and noticed something wrong. There were only three balls in the bag. He was concerned at first, then figured they would be OK with only six holes to play.
From the left rough, Woods hit a 56-degree sand wedge with such force that it put a scuff mark on the ball.
“He putts out for his par and gives it to a kid as he leaves the green,” Williams said. “My first thought was, ‘I’ve got to go get the ball off that kid. I’m watching this kid, and he’s showing his dad the ball. It’s got Tiger’s name on it, he’s all excited. How can I ask for this ball back? So we have two balls left.”
Woods bogeyed the 14th, birdied the 15th and parred the next two holes, keeping the same ball.
Then comes the 18th, with the ocean down the left side of the hole and out-of-bounds well to the right. Woods was leading by seven.
“My first thought was to hit iron off the tee, but he’s driving fantastic,” Williams said. “I can’t say, ‘Tiger, you can’t hit driver here because we ain’t got enough golf balls in case you hit it in the ocean.’ It’s the only time I can actually say I had butterflies in my stomach standing over a tee shot.”
For good reason. Woods hooked it in the ocean.
One ball left.
“I said, Tiger, you’ve got a seven-shot lead, take that iron out, hit it down the fairway, get it up there and let’s go to lunch and not waste making a horror number,'” Williams said. “He said, ‘Give me that (expletive) driver.’ I can’t say, ‘This is the last golf ball you’ve got.’ I tried as best I could, as conservatively as I could, to talk him out of it.”
Woods hit the fairway, hit into the bunker and got up-and-down for bogey and a 69. He had a six-shot lead, a U.S. Open record for largest 36-hole margin. Woods didn’t find out until after the tournament why Williams was insisting on an iron.
“He said, ‘What was all that commotion on the 18th tee on Saturday morning,'” Williams said. “I said, ‘Well, that was the last golf ball you have. If you had hit that down there in the water, we were going to see how quickly I could run 800 yards to the hotel room and back in five minutes.’ We always laugh about that.
“But if he hooked that second one in the ocean, I wouldn’t be standing here telling you the story.”
The first big blunder for Woods came on the third hole Saturday afternoon when he took two swings to escape gnarly rough and made a triple-bogey 7. He birdied two of the next four holes, and that was end of the suspense.
“Yes, he made a triple bogey down the third,” said Bjorn, paired with him that day. “But it was literally perfection all the way through. It was a different kind of golf to watch than anything I’ve ever seen. He was in full control of what he was doing. It was, looking back, one of the most special moments in the history of golf, to be honest.”
Woods shot 71, the only round he failed to break par. His 10-shot lead through 54 holes was another U.S. Open record.
Bjorn was out of it early and shot an 82. He felt as much out of control as Woods was in command.
“I thought going into it, ‘This is going to be the toughest day I’ve ever experienced as a player,’ and I realized very quickly what I was facing,” Bjorn said. “The whole course felt like it was moving because of the crowd. It was literally an impossible day for me. When I got to about 8 or 9, I just decided to sit back and watch history in the making instead of worrying about what I was doing.
“The way he played then, everything he did was so different from what anyone else could do.”
Els had a 68 in the third round that put him in the final pairing Sunday with Woods, and even 10 shots behind, he wasn’t waving a white flag on the first tee. He wanted to get off to a good start and see how Woods was playing.
Woods was flawless. Els had a balky putter. Within an hour, the only question was the margin of victory.
“It wasn’t easy for me,” Els said. “The tournament is over, and you basically watch another guy just kill you. It wasn’t the greatest of feelings. But it was nice to see. As I look back now, I was glad I was there, because it was obviously something very special.”
Woods opened with nine pars, then ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch to start the back nine. At that point, his only goal was to play the final round without a bogey. Els never felt so alone playing before so many people.
“He wouldn’t say a word to anybody,” Els said. “I was kind of playing on my own with a circus around me. I was basically watching him play. It was his show. If you don’t approach him, he doesn’t say anything, especially in the fourth round. With that lead, I don’t know what he had to prove. But he wanted to prove something. He never let up. He kept putting his foot on the gas. I’m sure he enjoyed it.”
Woods closed with a 67, the low score of the round for the third time that week.
After his final putt, Woods raised his right arm and smiled toward a gallery that was not sure what it had just witnessed. He set or tied six U.S. Open records that week, but those are just numbers.
No one had ever destroyed a championship field like that in golf.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it before,” Bjorn said. “And I find it difficult to believe we’ll ever find anybody doing it again.”