PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Just in case you forgot how good Tiger Woods was at his best, let me remind you with some forgotten lore.
Nineteen years ago here, Woods dominated the U.S. Open like no one else. His game in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach might be the finest golf ever played. At 12 under, Woods was the first player to finish 72 holes of the Open in double digits under par. He won by 15 strokes.
Here’s the punchline: He did all of that despite making a triple bogey in the third round. Ah, he tangled with some gnarly rough around the third green, so gnarly that it took him three hacks to get his ball onto the putting surface. And when he two-putted for his 7, he smiled. It was a rueful smile but a smile, nonetheless.
I doubt that Woods spent sleepless nights thinking, Gee, if only I had parred No. 3, I could have won by 18 shots! Dangnabbit.
Woods played his best golf in 2000-01. Of course, he held all four major championships at once, three of them in 2000. I’d call that his best year, if not the greatest year in golf history, with apologies to Byron Nelson’s 18-win season in 1945. Woods won nine times, plus once in Thailand, against deep fields.
The statistics don’t tell the story, though. What made Woods circa 2000 so mesmerizing was that in every tournament, he created improbable shots that never had been seen before.
I found a year-end wrapup that I researched for a now-extinct website in which I listed Woods’ 10 best shots of 2000. I called it Tiger’s Greatest Hits. The list shows just how remarkable he was, because he did all of these things in just one season. Believe it or not.
I didn’t rank the shots in order because, well, great is great, but on the eve of Woods’ and the Open’s return to Pebble Beach, they are worth replaying:
Canadian Open. You can’t appreciate it now because we’ve become numbed by the stupid distances that modern players hit the ball and, due to longer shafts and lower lofts, yesterday’s 4-iron is today’s 6-iron. But I guarantee that the 6-iron that Woods hit from a fairway bunker 218 yards over a lake to Glen Abbey’s 18th green with the tournament title on the line was one of the great jaw-dropping moments of his career. Nobody was hitting a 6-iron 218 back then – before the golf ball revolution – and certainly not from a fairway bunker. Woods hit the shot to the back fringe of the green, then two-putted for birdie to stun Grant Waite and win. Woods was the first player since Lee Trevino in 1971 to win the U.S., British and Canadian opens in the same summer. This was Tiger Woods at his demoralizing best. Nobody else on tour could have pulled off that shot, and nobody else on tour would have attempted it.
U.S. Open. The signature shot from Woods’ victory at Pebble Beach came on the par-5 sixth hole in the second round. He had a nasty lie in the right rough and faced a blind shot uphill near the cliff’s edge. He was going to have to lay up. Uh, he has to lay up, right? Instead, Woods slashed a 7-iron with all the strength that he could muster. The ball landed well short of the green, bounced hard and ran onto the putting surface. It was one of those impossible things he kept doing. NBC’s Roger Maltbie nailed the moment for posterity, saying on the air, “This just isn’t a fair fight.” And it wasn’t.
British Open. Woods revealed his inner golf-geekness when he said his best shot of the year, to him, was a 3-wood that he hit perfectly when he went for the par-5 14th green in two during the third round at St. Andrews’ Old Course. He aimed at a distant crane and hit the ball so purely that it carried 270 yards and finished on the green for a routine two-putt birdie. As soon as he struck the fairway wood, Woods cockily responded to caddie Steve Williams’ earlier request to hit a good one, “That the one you’re talking about?” Was it the Open’s signature moment? Did anyone else give it a second thought? No, but Woods liked the way it felt and the way he executed the shot in the moment. That was good enough for him.
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Back at Pebble Beach again. This time, Woods was making a final-round charge as he tried to chase down leader Matt Gogel. At the 15th hole, Woods holed out a wedge shot from the fairway, fist-pumped the excitement level to a full 10 and went on to shoot 31 on the closing nine and win the event. Oh, yeah: It was his sixth consecutive victory.
PGA Championship. Bob May and Woods put on a show with a shootout at Valhalla. The real shot of the tournament, despite what your memory might recall, was the 6-foot par putt that Woods made during Sunday’s final round. May holed his 18-foot birdie putt first. If Woods misses and May makes, Woods would be three down with three to play and Bob May is walking around now with a PGA Championship trophy. Woods made, May missed, and there was a playoff. Woods won it.
PGA Championship, The Encore. All right, by popular demand, here’s the stroke we can’t forget from the PGA: the 25-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole, No. 16. Woods went running after it and pointing at it before it even went into the hole. It is one of the most replayed golf shots in history, probably second only to Woods’ famous chip shot that backed down a slope and dramatically toppled into the cup at the Masters’ 16th hole.
Mercedes Championship. Was there ever a season-opening event as good as this one at Kapalua? Woods hit 3-wood to 15 feet on the 72nd hole and made the eagle putt. It was a good thing he poured it in because Ernie Els, who had played his 2-iron shot to 10 feet, rolled in an eagle putt on top of Woods’ to force a playoff. Which, of course, Woods won.
Memorial Tournament. Woods had a hot streak in Saturday’s third round en route to defending his title. The highlight was making eagle at the 563-yard seventh hole. Even though tournament host Jack Nicklaus had lengthened the hole, he still hadn’t Tiger-proofed it. All Woods did was hit a 3-iron off a downhill lie from 234 yards, a stunning play.
Bay Hill Invitational. Woods had just learned that Stanford, his beloved alma mater, had lost to North Carolina in the NCAA basketball tournament when he stepped up to Bay Hill’s 12th tee and blasted a drive 349 yards en route to winning yet another Bay Hill title. Not impressed? Remember, a 349-yard drive in 2000 would be like a 399-yard drive in 2019, when adjusted for inflation.
NEC Invitational. Woods had a bad lie in the left rough at the 18th hole at Firestone South in the third round. He had 184 yards to the pin, and there was a tree in his way. Woods used a pitching wedge – a pitching wedge! – opened the face, swung out of his shoes and spun on his right heel to make the shot hook, which lifted his leg off the ground in a contorted follow-through. The ball stopped 8 feet from the hole. CBS commentator David Feherty told Woods the next day that it was the best shot he’d ever witnessed. There was the possibility that Woods was human, though. He missed the birdie putt.
NEC Invitational, A Shot in the Dark. This one had “TV moment” written all over it, and, yes, Woods’ approach shot to the 18th green as darkness fell has stood the test of time. It still gets replayed in any batch of Tiger moments. From a difficulty standard, this shot at Firestone wasn’t one of the toughest. Woods had an 8-iron from 169 yards on a downhill hole. The trick was, it was nearly dark after Sunday’s play had been delayed three hours by storms. And if Woods hadn’t held a huge lead, he wouldn’t have tried to finish. But that’s a moot point. He played the shot, stuck the 8-iron to 2 feet, tapped in for a birdie and an 11-stroke victory. Besides roaring, the fans greenside showed their approval in classic rock-concert fashion, holding up lit lighters in the darkness, a moment Steven Spielberg couldn’t have scripted.
NEC Invitational, The Field Entry. This is the least-sexy entry but still notable. Maybe the second hole at Firestone South is on the short side for a par 5, but it isn’t really that short. Yet Woods eagled it in each of the first three rounds during the NEC Invitational en route to a winning total of 21 under.
Woods lived up to his billing, even exceeding it. Said Ernie Els in Hawaii at the start of the year, “He’s a legend in the making. He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he’s in his 40s.”
Yes, Tiger Woods was that good in 2000.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle