Caddie Steve Williams still finds it hard to fathom that if Tiger Woods had not made a triple bogey on the third hole of the third round, Woods would have won the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach by 18 strokes.
“It just doesn’t seem possible,” Williams said. “Instead, we settled for 15!”
Woods’s romp to the title was peak Tiger Woods, and the start of what became known as the Tiger Slam as he swept four straight majors through the 2001 Masters.
“It’s probably the greatest golf performance I think we’re definitely going to see maybe in golf,” Brooks Koepka said.
Both instructor Butch Harmon and Williams could tell Woods was hitting the ball beautifully ahead of the tournament in 2000, but it was the words of Sam Reeves, a pal of Harmon’s who had spent a lot of time watching Woods practice and play, who confirmed it for them.
“He said he’d never seen Tiger hit the ball so well and predicted this week could be something special,” Williams recalled. “When a player is really striping it in practice, the challenge is to go out the first day and just let it happen. Tiger put on a clinic, shooting a bogey-free 67 in which the longest putt he made all day was a 20-foot birdie at No. 7.”
His putter was his sword and his savior that week. “I made everything,” said Woods in his pre-tournament press conference.
Woods’s short game looks as sharp as ever and nobody on the PGA Tour is more precise with his irons. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee says the big question this time will be if he can match his putting performance. If Woods has a chink in his armour, he doesn’t like putting on bumpy greens and has been guilty of forcing the stroke a little bit on poa annua greens like at this week’s seaside resort.
“As moss sort of creeps up his limbs as he gets a little older — can he putt as well as he used to on poa annua?” Chamblee said.
“His putting is not quite what it was. That is the only question mark I see with Tiger this week.”
But back in 2000, it was an easy week for Williams because Woods was playing so well — with one exception. With an early re-start to finish the third round on Sunday, Williams picked up Tiger’s clubs at his room in The Lodge. When we arrived at the 13th tee, he stuck his hand in the bag and discovered he had only three golf balls instead of six.
“Little did I know, but he had taken a sleeve out of the bag that morning and practiced his putting on the carpet in his room,” Williams said. I couldn’t tell Tiger about this predicament and it got worse when Tiger tossed a scuffed ball to a young fan to the side of the 14th green. The kid danced with delight while I worried that we might need the ball.”
Fortunately for Williams, Woods played the next three holes unscathed.
“At 18, he asked me if I liked driver and I felt compelled to provide encouragement,” Williams said.
As soon as I handed him the club I was praying, Don’t hook it. Please don’t hook it. So, of course, he hooks it onto the rocks down by the beach.
In an expletive-laced tirade, Woods called for another ball, which happened to be his last. That’s when panic began to set in for Williams. He already stuck Woods’s driver back in the bag and clasped his hand firmly atop his Tiger head cover.
“He told me in no uncertain terms that he was ripping driver,” Williams said. “I’ve never been so nervous. I trembled at the thought of him being disqualified due to my mistake. If his second drive goes left into the water or out-of-bounds right, there goes his Open. Only later did I learn he wouldn’t have been DQ’ed if we’d run out of balls.”
Even holding a 10-stroke 54-hole lead, Woods always had goals and he wanted a clean card in the final round. It would have made little difference if he missed his 15-foot par putt at 16, but he grinded over it as if he were tied for the lead, not 15 ahead.
“He was fist pumping, and I was like, ‘The tournament is over, bro,’ ” recalled Ernie Els, his playing competitor that day. “But obviously he didn’t want to make a bogey or something. It was an amazing walk. It was tough for me because I was like a sideshow and people knew they were watching history being made, the first guy to go double digits under par and so forth.”
After the round, a reporter asked Els to compare Woods’s dominance to the 1862 Open Championship when Old Tom Morris won by 13 strokes, the record for margin of victory that Woods had just erased from the record book.
“If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger Woods, he’d probably beat him by 80 shots right now,” Els answered. “Hey, the guy is unbelievable, man.”
And there’s one more postscript from that Sunday in 2000: as soon as Woods exited the scoring trailer as the champion, he approached Williams and wanted to know why he had acted strangely on the 18th tee that morning. That’s when Woods first learned that he was down to his last ball.
“We shared a good laugh,” Williams said. “Tiger said to me, ‘Well, if I had lost another ball you would have been cleaning cars for the rest of your life.’ ”