It still blows my mind that had Tiger Woods not made a triple bogey on the 3rd hole of the third round, he would have won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 18 strokes. It just doesn’t seem possible. Instead, we settled for 15!
Both Butch Harmon and I could tell Tiger was hitting the ball beautifully ahead of the tournament, but it was Sam Reeves, a pal of Butch’s who’d spent a lot of time watching Tiger practice and play, who confirmed it for us. He said he’d never seen Tiger hit the ball so well and predicted this week could be something special.
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 65 in which the longest putt he made all day was a 20-foot birdie at No. 7.
On Friday, fog suspended play as we approached the 13th tee. Someone commented that nobody had made birdie there all day. Of course, that motivated Tiger and he struck a towering 5-iron just left of the flag and poured in the putt.
During the final round, he showed Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington that he meant business. We were on the par-three 7th green and they were playing in front of us. Proper etiquette called for Tiger to mark his ball and let the players on No. 8 tee off first. But slow play up ahead meant that Tiger was ready to putt just as the 8th fairway cleared. I asked Tiger if he was going to wait for them and he shook his head.
“I’m going to make them stand there and watch me bury the putt,” he said. His putter was his sword and savior that week. He made every putt inside six feet.
It was an easy week for me because he was playing so well. With one exception. With an early re-start to finish the third round Sunday, I picked up Tiger’s clubs at his room in The Lodge. When we arrived at the 13th tee, I stuck my hand in the bag and discovered he had only three golf balls instead of six. (He’d taken a sleeve out of the bag that morning and practiced his putting on the carpet in his room.)
I couldn’t tell Tiger about this predicament and it got worse when Tiger tossed a scuffed ball to a young fan beside the 14th green. The kid danced with delight while I worried that we might need the ball. Fortunately, he played the next three holes unscathed. At 18, he asked me if I liked driver and I felt compelled to provide encouragement. As soon as I handed it to him I prayed, “Don’t hook it. Please don’t hook it.” Of course, he hooks it onto the rocks. In an expletive-laced tirade, Tiger called for another ball, which happened to be his last.
That’s when panic set in. I’d already stuck his driver back in the bag and clasped my hand firmly atop the headcover. I suggested he hit a 2-iron and take his medicine, but Tiger had other ideas. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was ripping driver.
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, Tiger 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.
As soon as he exited the scoring trailer as the champion, he approached me and wanted to know why I had acted strangely on the 18th tee that morning. That’s when I told him that we were down to his last ball. We shared a good laugh. Tiger said to me, “Well, if I had lost another ball you would have been cleaning cars for the rest of your life.”