By John Huggan
Even from a distance of 16 years, the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach remains an unforgettable moment in the history of golf. Consider the following.
By 15 shots Tiger Woods won his national title for the first time. The only man under par, Woods led from start to finish, in the process equalling the all-time 72-hole US Open record of 272.
Relative to par, however, Woods’ 12-under-par total was a record by three strokes. He was thus the first man to shoot a double-digit under-par total in the what is purported to be the game’s toughest Major.
In the first and final rounds, the 24-year-old did not make a bogey.
By claiming his seventh USGA title, Woods became the first person ever to win the US Junior, US Amateur and US Open championships.
It was, in almost every way, the ultimate tournament, a feat even the great Jack Nicklaus never came close to achieving throughout his storied career. While the Golden Bear remains the greatest winner in the history of golf with 18 Major titles, there can be little doubt that no one has ever played the game better than Woods. No wonder then, that Michael Campbell, who would win the US Open in 2005, labelled Tiger “a freak of nature”.
Indeed, that was the consensus view at the end of a week that confirmed – if any were needed – that a new era in professional golf was about to begin. For almost the next decade there was really only one name that mattered in the game. So superior would Woods become that he, in that immortal phrase, “transcended his sport”, in the process becoming the first golfer ever to be the most famous sportsman on the planet.
The dominant memories, however, are of how well Woods putted on greens that were hard and bumpy. One journalist summed it up best: “You just can’t putt as good as this guy putts.” Which was just about right. Woods didn’t make everything he looked at, but it was close. His average of 27 per round – set alongside hitting 73.2 per cent of the fairways, 70.8 per cent of the greens and averaging 299.3 yards off the tee – made him unbeatable. For the record, he made six bogeys and one double bogey all week.
“If I played out of my mind, I probably lost by five, six, or seven shots,” said Ernie Els, who tied for a distant second alongside Miguel Ángel Jiménez on three over par. “It seems like we are not playing in the same ballpark right now. He’s phenomenal. And that’s an understatement. He’s the best player in the world by far. He’s probably ahead of Jack [Nicklaus] at this time in his career. He just played a perfect US Open. He did nothing wrong. The guy is unbelievable. If you would put Old Tom Morris with Tiger, Tiger would probably beat him by 80 shots.”
So demoralising was Woods’ level of play that what passed for his competition had long given up the chase before the processional final round. Coming off the 18th green after his third round 68 – the only sub-70 score of the day – Els made a beeline for his wife, Liezl. Did he mention how well he had played? No. Did he mention that he had outscored Woods by three-shots? No. Instead, the big South African’s mind was elsewhere. “I just took $50 off Monty,” was the first thing that he said to Liezl.
One day later, having accompanied Woods throughout the final 18 holes, Els was more overt in his praise of the new champion.
“He’s from Mars,” said the big South African. “If you ever want to see how to win a US Open that was it. Just see what he did today.”
Strangely in the face of such a tribute, Els was criticised in some quarters for saying what he did about his conqueror. There were those who felt he should be more defiant, his words the golfing equivalent of aiding and abetting the enemy. But that is missing the point. Els is a true sportsman and so was, even in the face of what must have been a stinging defeat, just a little bit thrilled by how well Woods had played. For such an attitude, Els deserves only praise, not insult to add to his injured ego.
There was but one moment of drama or doubt or controversy along the way. Having played 12 holes of his delayed second round late on Friday, the then two-times Major champion returned the following morning to complete what would be a 69. It could have been better though. From the 18th tee, Woods hit a wild hook on to the rocky beach that runs all the way up the left side of what is one of golf’s most picturesque holes.
As the ball bounced around on the shoreline, Woods unleashed a barrage of swear words, all of which were heard live across the globe. That was bad enough, but when Tiger turned to his caddie, Steve Williams, for another ball, his then-faithful bagman kept a vital secret from his employer. As it turned out, the ball that Williams passed to Woods was the only one left in the bag. One can only imagine what was going through the irascible New Zealander’s mind as he watched his boss tee up and swing. All was well in the end, but had Woods replicated his first effort from that iconic tee, disqualification would have been the likely result.
Long before the end, Woods’ sole motivation on the sabbath was to play the 18 holes bogey-free. Which he did, on a course he had first played with his Dad, Earl, when he was 13. In the rain.
“Even on a dry day, the course would have been way too long for me,” he said. “After I finally ‘got’ the mystique of the place, that’s when it became important to me. I was only six when Tom Watson chipped in at the 17th on the final day. To be honest with you, I don’t remember it. In fact, I didn’t understand at the time how much it meant. I just have this vague memory of Tom making the putt he didn’t need at 18 and raising his arms in victory. I don’t even remember the putt. I remember the arms.”
The same lack of detail is surely not a problem for Woods today. Even amid his storied career, the 2000 US Open must stand out.
“Well, I guess I won,” was his opening line in his press conference. “There comes a point in time when you feel tranquil, when you feel calm; you feel at ease with yourself. This week I felt that way. Things just flowed. No matter what you do, good or bad, nothing really gets to you. To have a week like that coincide with a Major championship is even better.”
Make that the best ever. No one has surely played at such a level. It was the complete performance by a man who was the complete player.