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August 16, 2012

This story on Tiger Woods's win at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black first appeared in the June 24, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated.

They embraced like soldiers returned from a grueling battle, brought together by the futility of their cause. Darkness had descended on New York's Bethpage State Park on Sunday, and the loudest, most brazen crowd in U.S. Open history had dispersed when Sergio Garcia spotted Jim MacKay, the caddie for fellow failed warrior Phil Mickelson, on a walkway outside the clubhouse. Garcia, fresh off watching playing partner Tiger Woods secure the second leg of the Grand Slam, told MacKay, "I'm sorry I couldn't put more pressure on him." As he turned to leave the grounds, the impetuous Spaniard stopped and gave the caddie a heartfelt hug. "You know what?" Garcia said. "It's just a matter of time."

Perhaps, but the clock keeps ticking, and guess which relentless 26-year-old keeps kicking butt? Woods, in winning this blessedly unruly U.S. Open by three strokes over Mickelson, took home his eighth career major and continued to siphon the suspense out of his sport. As with the Masters in April, Woods won going away despite a merely workmanlike final round, and there's scant hope that things will be any different at next month's British Open at Muirfield in Scotland. The man has won seven of the last 11 majors and with hardly a hint of drama: He was the only player to finish under par at Bethpage, and he led wire to wire. It sounds crazy, but wake us up in August when his Grand Slam is almost complete.

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At least this much is compelling: After a wondrous weekend of wild whacks, wisecracks and wet hacks, the Tiger hunters are on the loose. Not only are the world's next-best golfers desperate to derail him, but also a majority of the sport's fans — as represented by 42,500 chatterboxes each day at Bethpage — would love to see Woods at least squirm. If Garcia is correct, and it's inevitable that a bona fide threat will emerge, that dude, whoever he is, had better get with the program. "I know it will happen eventually," Mickelson insisted after his valiant weekend run at Woods. "Having the chance to compete against arguably the greatest player of all time is a special opportunity, and I'm getting closer to breaking through."

For now, as the four-day adventure on the Bethpage Black Course confirmed, Woods is Long Island iced tea to his foes' Diet Snapple. He has a sizable edge on them physically and mentally — and make no mistake, this was a highly emotional event. With the Open's being staged on a municipal course for the first time, in the shadow of the city that doesn't sleep, the overflowing galleries provided a constant barrage of blunt critiques and heartfelt passion. Imagine golfers lining up putts in front of the rightfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium, and you can picture the scene at the 17th green, where fans chanted, "Let's go Mick-el-son," and sang Happy Birthday to the second-place finisher (he turned 32 on Sunday), and where one heckler gurgled, "Hey, Phil — are those A cups?" Classy.

On paper the People's Open was won by the people's champion, as Woods grew up among the ball-mashing masses in Southern California. "I've slept in cars to get tee times," Woods said on Sunday. "I grew up playing at public facilities, too." Yet judging by the disparity in crowd noise, you'd have thought Woods was a pampered country clubber while Mickelson was the second coming of Arnold Palmer. Phil's Phan Club was so rowdy on Sunday that he was forced to back away from a 22-foot birdie putt on the 14th green because spectators lining the 15th tee, some 100 yards away, were chanting his name. (Mickelson settled for par, but the place still went berserk.)

Even Garcia, who sparred with spectators during the first three days — most notably, he made what appeared to be an obscene gesture to some loudmouths on the 16th fairway on Friday — got an inordinate amount of love on Sunday. It seemed that the New Yorkers, having dogged El Nino for everything from his incessant waggle while regripping his club to his famous girlfriend, tennis star Martina Hingis, came to respect Garcia for his fortitude.

Most of all, of course, fans wanted to see Garcia — or Mickelson, or anyone — stare down Woods. Pandemonium reigned late in Saturday's round when, within seconds, Mickelson birdied the 17th hole and Garcia, after sinking a birdie putt on 16, turned and pointed toward Mickelson in a gesture of unity.

To be fair, Woods got plenty of applause, but it was a more muted reaction. Casual golf fans admire Woods, perhaps even revere him, but his steely demeanor on the course and his inaccessibility off it make it hard for them to get close to him. For one thing, while he seems pleasant enough when he's not inside the ropes, the man almost never displays anything other than a focused scowl during play. Has any great golfer — hell, any great athlete — ever looked so grim while doing his job? Throw in the machinelike efficiency with which he dispatches his foes, and the distance grows. He got one of his biggest ovations on Thursday after ducking into a portable toilet en route to the 15th tee, then emerging a minute later, as if by relieving himself he had revealed his humanity. "Are you guys clapping because I'm potty-trained?" Woods quipped.

Cheering for Woods in a major is like rooting for rain in a thunderstorm. On Thursday and Friday, in whipping through rounds of 67 and 68, Woods was the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal throwing down dunks on helpless centers. On the weekend Tiger wisely ground out rounds of 70 and 72; his play was akin to a dominant football team's protecting a lead by running the ball in the second half. Anytime anyone got too close, Woods answered. On Sunday, when birdies on 11 and 13 brought Mickelson to within two, Woods quickly killed the buzz by blistering a drive on the par-5 13th, then barely missing a 20-foot eagle putt before tapping in for a birdie.

As with pal Michael Jordan, perhaps his only American athletic peer, Woods overwhelms opponents with his talent. Of equal importance is his superior conditioning, an almost insufferable competitive drive and a vicious work ethic. At 8:40 p.m. on Saturday, well after his competitors had left the grounds, Woods wrapped up an hourlong session on the range. He cut through the darkness and walked upstairs to his locker, where he found a handwritten apology from Garcia, who, after shooting a 74 in relentless rain the previous day, had made some inflammatory comments. Referring to Woods, who had completed his Friday round before the weather was at its worst, Garcia said, "It always seems like there's one guy who's lucky when he needs to be." He also took a shot at the U.S. Golf Association, saying, "If Tiger would've been out there, the USGA would have stopped play."

Upon reading Garcia's note, Woods broke into a huge smile. Then a reporter asked Woods if he was having any fun playing this tournament. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I just love competing. The fans are great; you have no choice but to enjoy them. Really, this is great."

Yeah, great for you, the cynics in the Open field might have replied. Garcia was hardly the only player insinuating that fortune was smiling upon Woods at Deathpage. At 7,214 yards, the par-70 course was the longest in U.S. Open history, an edge for big hitters like Woods and Mickelson. On Friday the windy and rainy conditions left many struggling to clear the deep heather on holes 10 and 12, at 492 and 499 yards, respectively, the longest par-4s ever in an Open. That USGA officials refused to provide a rescue from the fescue by moving up the tees rankled many players. "If they keep doing this, they'll take the fun out of the game, because only a few guys can win," groused Nick Price, who shook off Friday's 75 and rallied to tie for eighth. "But maybe that's what the USGA wants." Later, asked if he felt the USGA is tailoring Open courses for Woods in particular, Price, who has won three majors, winked and said, "It should be obvious to you, too."

Nick Faldo, a winner of six majors, compared Friday's round to "fighting in the jungle," and we all know Tiger is king. "Tiger loves it when conditions are tough because he's 20 to 30 percent better than anybody, so the tougher it is, the more he stands out," said Faldo, who tied for fifth. While his peers spent the day hacking out of wet, gnarly rough, Woods jacked up his game, then waited for his pursuers to falter. They have to catch me, Woods kept telling himself during Saturday's steady round, knowing nobody would. By the end of the day he had stretched his lead by a shot, to four.

Sunday's pairing with Garcia promised a compelling fight. Sergio's salty comments, and their subsequent tabloid exposure, inspired comparisons to classic New York feuds: Piazza versus Clemens; Stern versus Imus; Jay-Z versus Nas. But Woods and Garcia made nice-nice, and the showdown fizzled. Though Woods three-putted the first two holes for bogey, Serge made no surge. Garcia had a three-putt of his own at number 3 and proceeded to bogey three of the next nine. He made his only birdie on the 14th and shot 74 to finish fourth, six shots back. "I had him at the beginning, and I let him off," said Garcia. "He did what he had to do, but he did it because I let him."

Until Garcia overcomes Woods and wins a major, such statements will carry a whiff of delusion. Then again, Garcia is only 22; imagine the frustration of Mickelson, who is 0 for 40 in Grand Slam events. Criticized for risky play and collapses in big events, Mickelson played smart, gutsy golf at Bethpage, and he left as a better, prouder player. Now his growing legion of fans will dare to dream: Can Mickelson stand up to Woods at Muirfield the way Lee Trevino did 30 years ago to Jack Nicklaus, the last man before Tiger to win the first two legs of the Slam?

That was one of many possibilities to ponder at the 18th green as the deflated gallery followed its rousing send-off of Mickelson with a warm ovation for Woods and Garcia on their long walk up the fairway. It was nearly dark now, and the crescent moon was shimmering above. Noting the obligatory presence of Rudolph Giuliani, New York City's former mayor, a male spectator yelled, "Rudy for President!" and a cheer ensued.

Seconds later, a female voice broke the silence: "Rudy could beat Tigah."