From the Golf Journal Archives - The Boulder of Pebble Beach

Mar 26, 2010

Only four years after his U.S. Amateur triple, Tiger Woods inched nearer a career Grand Slam by proving he’s both the rock and the hard place.

By Brett Avery

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Golf Journal.)

At least when he was an amateur the victories were in doubt until the last reel. When he was Eldrick Woods, with Tiger a parenthetical identifier, those players who lost to him in three U.S. Juniors and three U.S. Amateurs felt they had a chance. A stroke here, a bounce there and someone else would have hugged the trophy.

How much life has changed in 1,393 days, from his final Amateur victory in 1996 to his first U.S. Open triumph last month at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. The once-ordered universe is askew. He now claims 20 victories as a professional, with 15 titles in his last 26 starts, including the PGA Tour event here in February, and four Grand Slam events at the unprecedented age of 24, winning two of those by gobs, not gasps.

His presence at a tournament makes other players cozy up to second place. His absence places an event on the back burner because it’s being squabbled over by the chorus. “There are a lot of great players out there who aren’t getting any credit,” Nick Price said frankly, “because Tiger’s taking it all.”

When Woods won the 100th United States Open by 15 shots – three better than the major-championship record of Old Tom Morris in claiming the 1862 British Open against a handful of players – he underscored that he is both rock and hard place. Consider that he made a triple bogey at the third hole during the third round, then bogeys at the eighth and 10th. That’s the type of hacking that leads to a lifetime of woeful remembrance for once-upon-a-time Open leaders.

By sundown Sunday, however, that chapter was a footnote after Woods tied the 72-hole record: He became the third champion in 50 years to card a triple, joining Cary Middlecoff (1956) and Lee Trevino (1971). In fact, the bogey at the 10th was the last he would make en route to shooting 272, matching the lowest total in Open history.

“I played with him today and it was awesome to watch,” said two-time champion Ernie Els of South Africa, who shared second with Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain in what was otherwise an exceptional Open for foreign players. “Just a dominating performance. That’s also an understatement.”

Anybody who thought the outcome was in doubt while Woods was making that triple Saturday needed to grab the remote and find a fishing show on television. At least caught fish are returned to the water. The other 155 players in the Open were left to flop on the deck beginning Thursday when Woods produced a morning 65, lower than any round in the three previous Opens at Pebble Beach.

It was a tamer Tiger’s typical round: six birdies, a dozen pars, including six holes where he missed the green and scrambled to save strokes and keep himself one ahead of the stalwart Jimenez. Woods now embraces course management as his mantra, seeing throttled-back club selection off the tee as an avenue to lopping strokes off par. And he spoke Thursday of honing his putting for a few hours the previous afternoon because he wasn’t happy with the way his ball was entering the hole. “I was making putts, yeah, but there are certain ways of making putts,” he explained with a straight face.

Right there the vote should have been taken to give Woods the trophy and spend the next three days shopping in Carmel. At least it would have been a more tolerable schedule in light of the fog that rolled in.

As if on cue after Woods’s round ended, the Monterey Peninsula was enveloped by the meteorological collision of triple-digit inland temperatures and a cool ocean breeze. Play halted at 3:57 p.m. Thursday but wasn’t called for the day for more than two hours; 75 players cranked up at 8:15 a.m. the next day and, because the first round wasn’t complete until nearly 2 p.m., another 55 were stranded by darkness Friday.

Amidst this jumble Woods caught prime conditions. His revised starting time of 4:40 p.m. put him out after much of Friday’s winds had evaporated. He squeezed in two-thirds of a round before darkness, rallying from a bogey at the diabolic, 466-yard ninth by knocking it to three feet at the 380-yard 11th, then running down a 30-footer for birdie at the 202-yard 12th to get to nine under for the week.

“If I can finish on a positive note, carry that same momentum into the afternoon, with the same positive vibes and the same concentration level, I think that’s the most important thing,” he said Friday night, three up on Jimenez, who was through No 7. “On a long day it’s easy to get a little lackadaisical, let your mind drift a little bit, instead of staying in the present, right now, and getting the job done.”

Saturday was not the happiest for Woods – four bogeys and the triple in 24 holes – yet he ended up leading Els by 10. His play may have shown Woods was human, but he was far too animated ending his second round, unleashing a tirade of expletives after driving into the ocean at the 543-yard 18th. NBC had pre-empted its kiddie fare to show a few more hours of the Open, so it is likely plenty of parents hoping for role-model material were left grasping for reasons why toddlers had to serve a timeout when Tiger was a potty mouth, too.

“I’m one of those guys who plays pretty intense, and unfortunately I let it slip out,” said Woods, also chastised by some for skipping a Wednesday morning memorial service for the late 1999 winner Payne Stewart. “And I regret doing it. But unfortunately it happened.” The incident tarnished a 2-under 69, making him only the fifth player in Open history to have the lowest score in each of the first two rounds. And the bogey left him thinking about his position: “Well, I guess if you go on to lose, you look like an idiot.”

By this time Woods was idiot savant, especially when Els was the only player charging Hamburger Hill. The third round was, statistically speaking, one of the toughest in history. The scoring average was 77.1, just two-tenths of a stroke behind the final round in 1992, when players fought to remain on their feet in howling winds.

That was when Els, the man who might be king for a third time, awoke. He had made bogeys in bunches: four in five holes in the middle of the back nine of the first round, three straight from the 10th in the second. But as the breeze picked up, and going out three hours ahead of Woods, Els broke from the peloton. “The best 68 I’ve ever shot” was sparked by holing a 97-yard sand iron shot for a deuce at the 331-yard fourth. “What I have to do tomorrow, I need to shoot another score like this,” Els said. “I need to play as good as I can, just get everything out of my round.”

True, but overtaking Woods didn’t seem possible after he ground out a 71 in a round that ended as dusk neared on the West Coast and bedtime arrived in the East. Jimenez had frittered away five bogeys in his 76 and fell back to third with Padraig Harrington. It was time for some back-of-the-envelope calculating: If Woods had not made four birdies coming home to lead by 10, and if he could have duplicated the 14 made by John Daly at the home hole in the first round before withdrawing, and if Els could happen upon a fairy godmother on the way to dinner...

Let’s face it: Sunday was boring. Compared to the four-man stare-downs at Congressional in 1997 and Pinehurst last year, or the mass rush to the finish at Shinnecock Hills in 1995, this had all the excitement of a metronome. Woods had won the Masters in 1997 from beyond the horizon, and he hadn’t backed up as a third-round leader until he stumbled in mid-May in a European tour event in Germany. What would it take this time? “For him to shoot about 85,” said Lee Westwood of England, the man who’d victimized him in Germany, now tied for seventh place, 13 back.

The written prescription was for howling winds like the conclusion in 1992, but the bottle contained a calm day. Woods missed one fairway and one green on the front nine and kept two-putting for pars. It was a change from his marksmanship of the first three days, when Woods ran down just about everything inside 15 feet for a one-putt par. But Els made bogeys at the fourth and fifth – the former with three putts, something Woods didn’t do all week on Pebble’s miniscule greens – and the only excitement was whether Woods could win by more than 11, as Willie Smith did in the 1899 Open, or crack 272.

The latter’s the holy grail, set in 1980 by Jack Nicklaus and equaled 13 years later by Lee Janzen over the same Lower Course at Baltusrol. Woods made birdies at the 10th and then 12th through 14th and looked ready to peek at the 260s. But he diddled around and came home with four pars, including a gutsy 15-footer after missing the 16th green.

“To be honest with you, I never really felt unbeatable,” he said, “but I did feel, out there on the greens, I had a weird feeling this week. It was hard to describe, the feeling of tranquility, calmness, especially amidst the stormy conditions yesterday. That’s something we all want to have, but you can’t exactly have that every day.”

The comparisons with Nicklaus were running hip deep by that point, especially with the symbolism of the old man, by the sea, finishing up his 44th (and probably last) Open late Friday afternoon as Woods pushed off for his second round. Torches were passed, mantles changed hands.

More than three decades after beginning the search for the “next Nicklaus,” and spurning thousands who were held up as contenders for the part, the prodigal son had been discovered. Now the equation can be turned around. As a public service, the card on why Jack was the first Tiger:

--EARLY WARNING. Two victories in the U.S. Amateur and an NCAA put his peers on notice before they were handed their cards as touring pros.
--LENGTH. Others could pound it out there, but he redefined yardage as a day-in, day-out advantage.
--GALLERY CONTROL. Half the time, players in front of him had spectators only because the fans were moving forward to get a spot at the ropes.
--THE SHADOW. Even when he apparently wasn’t doing anything, other players were wondering when whatever he was going to do would happen and not concentrating on their own play.
--THE ROAR, How many guys born in the general vicinity of Jan. 21, 1940, can say they even once sent home thousands of slightly hoarse, smiling fans because they dunked the putt?
--VICTORIES. He won them the way firewood is stacked: in cords. Even his “lean” years, in terms of numbers, would have tempted others to sell their soul: 1966: Masters, Sahara, British Open, National Team. 1976: Tournament Players Championship, World Series of Golf. 1980: US. Open, PGA. 1986: Masters.
--THE ANIMAL SYMBOLISM. You want to fight a bear bare-handed?

In retrospect, the toughest moment of the week for Woods came Sunday night, in the press tent. “If you can bear with us,” one writer asked with pun unintended, “how great do you think you are?” It was practically the only time Woods flinched, and for a moment he pondered a response.

“I know there’s a few things on my game I’m going to continue to work on – my whole game. I’m going to try to keep improving it,” he said in the heart of the soliloquy. “I will probably have a better understanding when I’m probably 60 years old and I look back in hindsight at where I was at my peak and how long my prime was. But until then, you really don’t know until you go through it.”

Better yet, don’t hold that bus for the shopping in Carmel. It will be interesting to stick around and see how many other players believe the light at the end of their tunnel just went out.

Woods matched the benchmark of 272 by mixing overpowering length with a deft putting stroke he refined on the eve of the opening round. (USGA Museum)

Els came alive in the third round, overcoming the worst winds of the week with a day’s best 68. (USGA Museum)

Paul Azinger mirrored the field’s frustration in trying to get a grip on Pebble, not to mention the guy on top. (USGA Museum)