Ed. note: This look back at the 2000 U.S. Open – during the week that the 120th edition had been scheduled at Winged Foot – is the fifth in a series of remembrances of memorable years in tournament history.
Perfection in major championship golf is unattainable, an elusive ideal saved for dreams and video games. Golf itself is too exacting, the cathedrals of play too demanding, the pressure of competition too consuming for any one person to navigate without succumbing, even in the case of victorious survival.
Twenty years ago, this week, we witnessed the closest anyone has come to perfection.
Some of the elements that made the 2000 U.S. Open that way were baked into the cake before a tee shot was struck. It was the 100th playing of the championship and Pebble Beach, arguably the country’s most recognizable course, served as host. This was to be the week Payne Stewart defended the title he captured at Pinehurst a year prior – to honor his untimely passing, players lined up along the 18th fairway and hit balls into Stillwater Cove.
And then there was the man to match the setting. Tiger Woods, a California native with two major championship victories to that point, arrived on the property in the midst of what would become the greatest season in PGA Tour history. In February, Woods won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on the same links by erasing a seven-stroke deficit with seven holes to play; in March, he easily cruised to his first Bay Hill Invitational win by four strokes; in May, he seamlessly switched to a solid core golf ball and defended his title at the Memorial Tournament with a five-stroke triumph.
“… That kid right there? He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen. He’s the greatest player in the world.” – Mark O’Meara
In the 23 starts prior to the U.S. Open, he won 12 times and finished in the top five on 19 occasions. His odds coming into the tournament were 3-to-1, which somehow understated the mammoth chasm between Woods and all other challengers.
Before Woods teed off on Thursday, the feeling of inevitability began to spread. Woods and his close friend, Mark O’Meara, played multiple practice rounds together, which prompted commentator Johnny Miller to ask O’Meara what he thought of the state of Woods’ game.
“Johnny is like, ‘Mark, how is the kid hitting it?’ ” O’Meara recounted. “And I said, ‘That kid right there? He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen. He’s the greatest player in the world.’ He never missed a shot out there in the practice rounds, it was unbelievable. I said to Johnny, ‘To be fair, if he doesn’t win this week, I’ll be absolutely shocked.’ ”
The hyperbolic endorsement by O’Meara created the foundation for what would ensue as benign conditions greeted players on Thursday morning. Woods capitalized on the softness of the greens and encountered little stress, going out in 2-under 33 before making another four birdies on the inward nine. His creativity and total command of game became apparent on the par-5 14th hole when he missed short and left of the green, leaving himself an awkward third shot with a tree taking away the option of lofting the ball high in the air – a deft pitch that landed in the rough and scooted forward next to the hole looked routine.
With Woods holding a narrow early lead on the 15th tee, Miller had seen enough to make a proclamation on the broadcast.
“I really do believe, I have this hunch that Tiger is going to break every U.S. Open record and win by maybe a big margin,” Miller said.
Woods got up and down from the greenside bunker on No. 18 to post a bogey-free 6-under 65 – the lowest score ever recorded at Pebble Beach in a U.S. Open, which has since been matched – but it only afforded him a one-stroke cushion over Miguel Ángel Jiménez and a two-stroke advantage over John Huston. With 28 players at par or better, Woods had earned the lead but no meaningful separation.
How the gap grew on Friday could not have been scripted.
Jack Nicklaus, playing in his 44th and final U.S. Open, was asked to take Stewart’s spot playing with the previous year’s Open Championship victor (Paul Lawrie) and U.S. Amateur champion (David Gossett). The four-time U.S. Open champion opened with a 2-over 73 and appeared destined to make the cut, which ultimately fell at 7 over, before faltering with an 11-over 82 a day later.
As Nicklaus walked up the 18th fairway to a long, standing ovation, Woods stood on the nearby first tee awaiting his second round to begin.
“I heard this huge roar coming up and I thought, ‘Jack is due to finish anytime now,’ ” Woods said in his second-round press conference. “It was nice to hear that. And I wish I could have been there but I had little more important things to take care of.”
There had been a fog delay that morning, pushing Woods’ tee time back to 4:40 p.m. and making it certain that he would not finish his second round on Friday. As the greens became bumpier and the temperature dropped, Woods made the move that would cement him as the champion.
Two iconic Tiger moments came that afternoon. The first was when he blocked his tee shot on the par-5 sixth into the right rough, one of the most punishing misses on the course. Because of a steep cliff, missing in the rough typically means you must pitch out sideways back into the fairway before taking on the hillside.
With 202 yards to the hole, Woods unveiled a 7-iron and prepared for a vicious lash. It was a shot no one else would even consider.
“I had a good enough lie to where I thought I could squeeze it up there and catch a hot one,” Woods said. “I could come down steep enough to where I could get a little flier out of it. That shot wasn’t as hard as people thought it was. I just opened up my stance and hit it as hard as I could.”
The result is still alive in every highlight reel of Woods’ career. He managed to reach the green and two-putted for birdie. Roger Maltbie, who followed Woods that day, offered one of the great lines in golf broadcast history: “It’s just not a fair fight,” he said.
“No, it really isn’t, Roger,” answered fellow commentator Gary Koch.
The second iconic moment came in near darkness. Woods arrived at the 12th tee at 8 under for the tournament, facing one of the toughest holes on the course. Only 16 percent of the field had hit the green in regulation that day, and that was in daylight.
“He hit a decent shot to get it on the green,” caddie Steve Williams said. “Most players would want to mark their ball and come back the next day.”
Instead, Woods rolled home the 35-foot birdie putt and took a three-stroke lead into the darkness. The leaderboard showed a tournament in question, but anyone who witnessed it live believed Woods’ first U.S. Open win and third major championship victory was a foregone conclusion.
The story of Saturday is another one perched high in the kingdom of Woods lore. In his hotel room that night, he had taken out three balls to putt with for practice. With an incredibly early wakeup call – Woods was on the range hitting balls at 5 a.m. – Williams grabbed his player’s clubs without noticing that the three balls weren’t put back into the bag.
Unknowingly, Woods showed up to the course with just three balls. With only six holes remaining in the second round, that didn’t appear to be too much of an issue. Only the par-5 18th has water in play, and there would be ample time to get more balls ready for the third round.
Williams realized the error on the 13th hole and hoped for no concerns down the stretch, but a problem quickly developed when Woods found the rough off the tee and scuffed the ball during his approach. On his way to the 14th tee, he handed the damaged ball to a kid.
The largest 54-hole lead in U.S. Open history to that point was in 1921 when Englishman Jim Barnes led by seven strokes. Woods led Els by 10.
Woods remained at 9 under heading into the 18th and still had the two golf balls. He opted for a driver off the tee and hit his worst shot of the tournament, a pull hook into the Pacific Ocean that jumped from rock to rock with each expletive Woods muttered.
“If he hits this one in the ocean, we got no golf balls left,” Williams said. “Of course, I can’t explain to him that we have no balls left. That’s my job to make sure we have everything ready for the golf course. If I said that there he would have said, ‘Well you put the clubs down and walk back home.’
“I suggested he needed an iron off the tee. But he was not going to hit an iron. I don’t think I’ve ever stood on the tee with my backside trembling, and it was.”
Short of Williams wading out into the Pacific to find the golf ball, this drive was either going to be in play or Woods would have been disqualified. Without knowing any of what was happening, Woods hit a driver again, found the fairway and saved bogey. His 2-under 69 left him six strokes clear of Jiménez and Thomas Bjørn, giving him the largest 36-hole lead in U.S. Open history – he would wait seven hours to begin his third round later that day.
The only other serious error Woods made came early in that round. Winds had begun to pick up with whitecaps forming in the bay, and after a birdie on the second hole, Woods faced an approach shot on the par-4 third with a near gale facing back at him. The shot ballooned into the air, hitting a wall and dropping down short of the greenside bunker in brutally thick rough. He tried to hack it out of the rough twice but could only advance it a few yards each time. Playing quickly and looking flustered, he went on to card a triple bogey.
“I smiled afterwards because I didn’t hit that bad of a shot and I ended up walking away with seven,” Woods later said.
The rest of the competition was a coronation. Woods recovered from the early triple bogey to post an even-par 71, a score that only Ernie Els beat on that day. The largest 54-hole lead in U.S. Open history to that point was in 1921 when Englishman Jim Barnes led by seven strokes. Woods led Els by 10.
“It had the look of a total blow-away-the-rest-of-the-field type of event,” announcer Dan Hicks said. “I’m thinking, ‘Are we going to lose viewers?’ The worst thing that can happen in a sporting event is that the outcome can be determined way before it’s done. It became a situation where we were all out of historical perspective. It was a quest for perfection at that point.”
What did Woods use as motivation the final day? Not more records. The game he played was to avoid making a bogey.
He accomplished that, grinding over par saves on Nos. 6 and 16 while making four birdies in five holes to start the back nine. The record at the time for lowest score in a U.S. Open was 12 under, the mark Woods reached by the time he came to the 72nd hole.
True to his goal for the day, Woods played conservatively with an iron off the tee. After a layup with his second, he waited for the group ahead to putt out and wandered over to the sea wall, calmly looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
A few years earlier, his father, Earl, had said his son would change not just golf, but the world at large. In that moment, about to make another par to clinch a 15-stroke victory and win a major by the largest margin in history, Woods cemented what his dad meant.
The world had seen the greatest golf ever played.
Tiger Woods tees off during the fourth round of the 2000 U.S. Open. Photo: John Mummert, Copyright USGA
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