Grand Stand

August 19, 2011

This story on Tiger Woods’ win at the 2000 British Open first appeared in the July 31, 2000, issue of Sports Illustrated.

“Is Tiger ready?” David Duval asked on Sunday night, standing with his bags packed in front of the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland — the birthplace (and perhaps final resting spot) of golf. Three hours earlier Duval, the world’s No. 2 player, was beaten, in ridiculous fashion, by Tiger Woods in the British Open, as were 71 other also-rans, and now, in the dark, Duval again deferred to the champion. A private jet idled at Leuchars Royal Air Force base, five minutes away, a winged chariot that had been chartered by the agency that manages both Woods and Duval. It would fly the two men — the Open’s final pairing — to Orlando, along with Australian pro Stuart Appleby. Of course, there was no need for anyone to leave for the air base until Woods appeared outside the hotel. While the plane would not hesitate to take off without Appleby, “it’s not going anywhere,” Appleby said, “without Tiger.”

Even to those who are tired of Woods — who are Tiger-fatigued — what happened next was arresting. Woods emerged from the hotel with a totem under each arm: One was a symbol of his old-soul experience, the other of his unfathomable youth. In his right hand was the claret jug, awarded to the Open champion. In his left, a carry-on bag bearing a faded sticker of the cartoon character Cartman, from South Park. “Bye, Mom, I love you,” said Woods, kissing his mother, Tida, at the curb. “I’ll call you when I get back.” With that, Woods and his girlfriend, Joanna Jagoda, disappeared into a courtesy van, leaving Mom, history, Hogan, Nicklaus, drama and whatever remained of competitive golf all standing at the curb, waving goodbye.

With his 19-under-par performance at the Old Course, Woods lapped the field by eight strokes, 35 days after winning the U.S. Open by 15. In doing so, he achieved a career Grand Slam at age 24, two years younger than Jack Nicklaus was when he did it. Golf has gone strictly black-Thai, and it’s no longer optional. Woods now holds the record for most strokes under par in the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open. Until three-putting the second green last Saturday, he had played 63 consecutive holes in major championship competition without making bogey. “He’s the best who ever played,” Mark Calcavecchia sighed on Sunday, “and he’s 24.”

How dramatically did Woods complete his reinvention of the game, on the site of its actual invention? Consider this watershed, remarkable for its sudden lack of remarkability: With Woods having won the the PGA, the U.S. Open and the British Open and Vijay Singh having won the Masters, it has been more than a year since a white guy won a major championship. St. Andrews may be the home of golf, but Woods has become the game’s absentee owner. “Somebody out there,” said Thomas Bjorn, who tied for second last week with Ernie Els, “is playing golf on a different planet.”

In fact, the entire field at St. Andrews played on the cratered surface of the moon. The Old Course’s famous bunkers — essentially uncovered manholes — were steepened further for the millennial Open. If that news wasn’t ominous enough, an attendant bearing a seven-foot rake followed each group, like Death with his scythe. On Sunday, Duval took four strokes to get out of the Road Hole bunker on 17, the infamous Sands of Nakajima, as the Grim Raker discreetly averted his gaze. Woods likewise looked away.

Earlier in the week Calcavecchia and Sergio Garcia had both putted away from the six-foot-high wall of that bunker before even attempting to pitch out. Tsuyoshi Yoneyama blasted out backward, toward the tee box. But Woods, almost embarrassingly, played 72 holes on a course with 112 bunkers and never soiled his trouser cuffs. Given the 10 pieces of luggage that he and Jagoda carried to Scotland, he could afford to have done so. “He brought everything,” said his mother, “except kitchenware.”

But then, Woods demands order and routine at the majors. For four days he is afflicted with a kind of tournament Tourette’s, exhibiting countless obsessive compulsions. In practice he sometimes requires himself to hole 100 six-foot putts. Consecutively. Using only his right hand. He also barks the odd obscenity after tee shots, as he did last Thursday after pulling a ball into the rough on 17.

He’s a neat freak who picks lint off greens with the fastidiousness of Felix Unger. He turned his back to the gallery on most fairways last week to honk into his hanky or apply eyedrops with a Poindexterous proficiency. For just under the surface of Woods’s Nike-baked glaze remains a golf wonk named Eldrick: When they were teammates at Stanford, Notah Begay called the allergy-addled, dickie-wearing freshman Urkel. Urkel’s mother said of her son on Sunday night, “If he tried to boil water, he would burn the pot.”

Yet for all his manifold tics — the honking and sneezing and barking — Woods goes placid as a Zen garden before hitting a golf ball. That is his physical genius. “All players have some preshot routine,” says Nick Faldo, the next iciest golfer of the last 15 years, whose British Open low-aggregate record Woods broke at St. Andrews. “Tiger has blitzed all that. There’s no twitch, no lift of the hat, no wasted energy.”

Nick Price was paired with Woods for the first two days of the Open and, following a 5 1/2-hour round that didn’t end until Friday evening, came off the course thoroughly flapped by Woods’s unflappability. “He’s on cruise, man,” said Price, desperately flicking a disposable lighter in the manner of someone who had just witnessed a riveting calamity. “I’m telling you, he hasn’t even tried any shots yet … (flick!) … I’ve seen him mishit only three shots this week … (flick!) … I played like that once in my life, at the PGA … (flick!) … He’s played like that four or five times now and will do it 20 more times.” Price finally produced a flame and sparked a cigarette. “Tiger cut a three-wood off the tee at 17 today, and I smoked a driver,” he said, exhaling. “He was a yard past me.”

Woods led the tournament by three strokes at that point. In the entire tournament, during which he had rounds of 67, 66, 67 and 69, he didn’t make a single eagle. Besides driving distance, he led the tournament in only one other statistical category: low score.

David Toms played with Woods for the first time on Saturday and was struck dumb by “his focus.” It nearly rhymed with psychosis. “I have never seen so many people on a golf course,” said Toms, who finished 10th on the PGA Tour money list last year yet is largely anonymous in this unlucky generation of professionals. “A lot of those people are screaming at him, sometimes when he’s standing over a shot. It is awesome to watch.”

It’s not that Woods can’t hear the gallery, with its Caesar-entering-Rome salutations, from the center of his roped corridors. To the contrary, he hears everything. In the dead silence of the 6th fairway on Saturday, Woods backed off his ball and glared at the crowd for reasons — a moth fluttered its wings in Madagascar? a dolphin squeaked beneath a distant sea? — known only to him. He’s most assuredly not saying. Woods gives away nothing in postmatch interviews. No emotions, no personal details whatsoever. He treats every press tent as a sensory-deprivation chamber.

Woods’s gallery was managed last week by an elite commando unit of golf marshals, the same men who have worked his rounds at the Open since Troon three years ago. They went about their grave business — containing the streakers, sportswriters and other degenerates who pursue Woods in a massive conga line inside the ropes — with paramilitary zeal, all but singing boot-camp-style as they marched up the fairways. I wanna be a golf-course ranger!/I wanna live a life of danger!

Such vigilance is now necessary on golf courses, thanks largely to Woods. A tournament-record throng of 230,000 attended this year’s Open, and it finally overwhelmed Her Majesty’s Marshals on Sunday evening, breaching the security cordon on the 18th fairway and pouring forth behind Woods like water through a burst dam, threatening to carry him to the green. Security guards who had evidently cut their teeth on soccer hooligans pitched at least two spectators into the Swilken Burn, the creek that runs across the 1st and 18th fairways. The man working the massive scoreboard behind the green, understandably addled, mistakenly posted Woods’s score not as -19 but as -29, giving him an 18!stroke lead, preposterous even by his present standards.

When Woods finally reached his tee shot on 18, a comprehensively tanned woman, wearing but a tattoo, gamboled from the gallery to the green, where she grabbed the flag and danced around it as if it were a maypole. Just like that, half of Scotland looked like Tiger — wearing scarlet on Sunday. Inside the 146-year-old Royal & Ancient clubhouse, monocles fell into soup tureens. When a policeman finally bundled the streaker from sight, Woods chipped on and two-putted. His world domination was complete. Thus was ushered in the Leaden Age of Sportswriting.

For what will be left to say of Woods’s golf game five years, five months, five weeks from now? “He has to have challengers for the whole thing to be right,” Nicklaus told a tentful of scribes last week. “It’s a bad story if there aren’t any challengers. You guys won’t have anything to write about.”

Indeed, last weekend saw the final pages flipped on some cosmic Chinese golf calendar — from the Age of the Bear to the Age of the Tiger. When Nicklaus putted out on 18 on Friday, ending what is presumed to have been his final round ever at the British, Woods happened to be 50 yards away, near the 1st tee, practicing his putting in advance of his own round. He didn’t applaud Nicklaus, and scarcely even looked at him. There is a joylessness to Woods’s appointed rounds. Not so with Nicklaus, who, having missed the cut at the Old Course, immediately scheduled a leisure round for Sunday, his 40th wedding anniversary. “I played golf the day I got married,” he reasoned. “Barbara didn’t mind it then; she certainly won’t mind it now.”

Woods may have learned too well from Nicklaus, whose records were taped to the headboard of Tiger’s bed even at age 10. Of his list of achievements, Woods actually said on Sunday night, “I thought I’d be at this point faster than it took,” which is to say sooner. With such ambitions, victory results not in joy but relief. Woods’s smile, while famous, is far too infrequent. More often he wears the game face: It could serve as a gargoyle on the gray granite buildings of St. Andrews. He doesn’t save his game face strictly for the golf course, either. Woods and Mark O’Meara spent the week before the British Open playing golf and fly-fishing in Ireland. O’Meara caught a six-pound Atlantic salmon one morning after Woods had slipped off to eat breakfast. When Tiger returned to see the fish, his face betrayed something other than delight. “I could tell,” says O’Meara, “he wished it had been him who caught it.”

So it is with majors. Woods wants all the fish worth catching, and he intends to take his limit. Things could be worse for his colleagues: Colin Montgomerie has become wealthy winning 24 nonmajors, nine of them named for car manufacturers. “I’ll go on doing what I do, winning the Volvo PGAs,” he said last week, staring into a bland, if lavishly automotive, future. Likewise Ernie Els. Or rather, Ernie Ls: He has finished second to Woods four times — this year. “Everybody,” says Nicklaus, “has thrown up the white flag and surrendered.” Then again, says Calcavecchia, “If Jack was in his prime today, I don’t think he could keep up with Tiger.”

“There’s no doubt that we’re playing for second place,” Bjorn concurred on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon Bjorn proved it, seizing that second-place tie with Els, securing for both men a coveted silver … salad plate.

Is it any wonder, then, that Montgomerie snapped, “Next question,” when Woods’s name was raised in the interview tent last week? Els was asked to talk about Woods 45 seconds into his session with the press after taking the first-round lead. “C’mon, that’s not fair,” said the Big Easy, uneasily. “I just shot a 66. If you want to talk to Tiger, call him on the telephone.”

Good luck getting through. “Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike wrote of Ted Williams, who refused to tip his cap after homering in his final at bat at Fenway. Woods, another athletic prodigy who sounds as if he’s no fun to fish with, doesn’t take phone calls. He has his circle of friends, but most adhere to a strict code of omerta — or is it a code of O’Meara? — that ensures the public will never likely get to know him. Which is fine, because his performances will more than suffice as entertainment. “Why does the writing make us chase the writer?” the British novelist Julian Barnes wrote of the modern obsession with celebrity. “Why aren’t the books enough?”

With Woods, the books are enough, and will remain so. “When Michael Jordan played, I pulled for him,” Toms said after his professionally unsettling yet oddly uplifting Saturday round with Woods. “As a sports fan, I enjoy seeing a top athlete perform at his best.”

One only hopes that Woods can enjoy his feats as much as others do. When Justin Leonard, briefly a contender to Tiger’s generational supremacy, won the British Open at Troon in 1997, he sneaked back onto the course at midnight and drank champagne on the 18th green. While Woods left St. Andrews in his jetwash well before the clock struck 12 on Sunday, he did celebrate in a small way, a way that suggests he might one day loosen up, maybe even undo the top button of his polo shirt.

Before leaving town, he ducked into a building on the grounds of the Old Course and said thank you to the tournament committee. He posed for pictures while flustered staffers struggled to work their Instamatics. Finally, claret jug in his left hand, he raised a glass of champagne with his right. Said Woods, “I’d like to make a toast to St. Andrews.”

The new and future champion took a small sip, grimaced a small smile and, another duty done, politely began to make his exit. But his girlfriend wouldn’t have it. “Keep drinking!” Jagoda ordered. Woods, dutifully, emptied the flute.

Issue date: July 31, 2000