Ten years after his first win at St. Andrews, it's a whole new Tiger

Ten years after his first win at St. Andrews, it’s a whole new Tiger

Tiger Woods was in a different place in his life when he clutched the claret jug in 2000.
Robert Beck/SI

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — I have lasting memories of the 2000 British Open: the train ride from Edinburgh’s Waverley station through countryside dotted with purple flowers. My Arnold Palmer Peerless irons, black Cougar putter, and no-name, big-headed driver (with a slice bias). The UK magazine, Woman’s Own, with the headline, “I lost 18 stones in 17 months.” That one still cracks me up.

I’d come to the home of golf not as a sports writer, but as a fan wielding clubs and a journal. Tiger Woods had just won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots. A win at the Old Course would make him, at 24, the youngest winner of the career grand slam. I had to go. Death and taxes weren’t as big of a lock as Tiger was.

Through two rounds he’d gone 67-66, and a town synonymous with golf history was fast readying for more. Jack Willoughby, who owns the nearby Dunvegan Hotel, posted a message that week on the chalkboard that hangs on the wall outside the hotel. I took a photo of the sign with my disposable camera. “Calling on David, Steve, Sergio, Loren, Fred, Ernie, Phil, Thomas, Tom,” the message read. “We request you boys get your butts in gear and make for an exciting finish … Anything less is unacceptable.”

“That was a Friday,” Willoughby told me later. “By Saturday, it was too late.”

Woods won by eight, I hopped the Swilcan Burn with thousands, and if you would have bet any of us that Woods would be at St. Andrews 10 years later in his current state, we all would have lost money.

At his press conference Tuesday morning, Woods faced more questions about divorce, his Canadian doctor, and other off-the-course issues than he did about his golf. (He enjoyed the sit-down about as much as he would a buried lie in the Road Hole bunker.)

The stock question from Tiger media sessions these days: “What on earth is going on in your world right now?” His stock answer: “It is what it is.” If everything in Tiger’s world was right in 2000, it couldn’t be more upside down now.

“What Tiger did in 2000 and 2001, he was just really unbeatable,” says Ernie Els, who finished runner-up here in 2000. “Things have changed a little bit.”

Things have changed a lot. But for nine holes at Pebble Beach, his recent showings in the majors have been wobbly and uninspired. At last year’s PGA Championship, three months before Woods’s scandal, Y.E. Yang decked him in the final group, where Woods was left to putt out following Yang’s closing birdie. At his comeback at the Masters and, later, at the United States Open, Woods finished tied for fourth, more supporting actor than leading man.

St. Andrews will serve as another Woods barometer. A win would turn the conversation away from questions about blood-spinning and alimony, if only for a little while. Another defeat and Woods would be close to calling 2010 a wasted year.

As for 2000? It was still a great trip. I remember following Tiger’s group and observing his mother, Tida, standing by the ropes. “We need a birdie,” Tida would repeat over and over, and Woods would eventually oblige. I remember feeling how warm the sun was that week. I remember the look on David Duval’s face when he finally exited the Road Hole bunker.

For old time’s sake, I walked to the Dunvegan Hotel on Tuesday morning. I couldn’t find Willoughby, but his chalkboard sign was still hanging in the very same spot that it was 10 years ago. I drew closer to take a look and found another message. This one showed just how much things have changed since 2000:

“To all that try we wish you well, who will win Sunday no one can tell.”