A decade later, Tiger’s open to doubts
Much will be said in reverence in the coming week about the stirring deeds of Tiger Woods at the 2000 US Open.
Ten years later, many rank it as the greatest-ever performance at a major, which it is statistically, and probably spiritually, too, given that Woods ceased to be seen by his contemporaries as a mortal after beating the Lilliputians by a preposterous 15 shots.
“(Fifteen) shots was a big spread,” said Padraig Harrington, “I don’t think anybody at that time felt they could have done that even on their very best week. So he did look like he wasn’t just one step, he looked like he was probably three steps ahead of everybody else."
But, strangely enough, Woods doesn’t even rank his coronation at Pebble Beach at the top of his personal list of 14 major triumphs.
"’97 Masters was actually pretty good, I think,” he shrugged two weeks ago when asked if the 2000 US Open was his greatest major.
“2000 British Open (at St Andrews, where he won by eight shots) wasn’t bad either.”
And don’t get him started talking about the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, where he won with one good leg and one big heart.
That emotional triumph — on the San Diego course where he shared so many moments with his late father, Earl — tops his personal list.
Caddie Steve Williams, who’s been on the bag for all but the first major, shares his boss’ view that too much is made of 2000 in general, and Pebble Beach in particular.
“2000 was a phenomenal year, but if you look back at his putting statistics, and I keep all Tiger’s statistics, he putted unbelievably,” Williams told me.
“I mean, yeah, he played good, there’s no denying that, but he putted phenomenal and his short game was great.
“It would be hard to say to somebody that at Pebble Beach, he didn’t hit it his best, because you can’t say that when the guy wins the U.S. Open by 15 shots.
“It’s going to sound derogatory to the rest of the field, but the truth is he played good but he didn’t play great.
“He managed his game well and he putted unbelievably well. He made no mistakes.”
Given the chance to wax lyrical at the Memorial tournament two weeks ago about his victory at Pebble, Woods was instead indifferent, if not bored by the questions. He couldn’t even remember that he’d shot 65 in the opening round.
“I just got off to a good start the first day, 66 or something, 65, 66, whatever it was,” he said.
“I played really well the first day.
“(That’s) kind of the whole thing with the U.S. Open, you just have to get off to a good start. It’s so hard to make up ground. I was able to do that. It just went off from there.
“Actually, it was a pretty interesting week, because I didn’t miss a putt inside eight feet for the whole week, on poa annua greens. You don’t have weeks like that. I don’t have weeks like that.”
So what’s with all the downplaying?
To understand Woods, it’s crucial to understand that his entire world view is based on the belief that he’s a better golfer today than he was yesterday and will be an even better one tomorrow.
He simply won’t — or can’t — accept that he was at his best 10 years ago.
Every time I ask him to compare his play now against that of 2000, he doesn‘t even pause to consider the question.
“I’m much more of a consistent ball striker than I was then,” he told me at the Memorial.
The player who finished dead last in the field at the Memorial in driving accuracy and was in the middle of the pack in both driving distance and greens hit in regulation could beat the 24-year-old who dominated at Pebble Beach?
While I remember that Woods definitely got the best of the weather at Pebble 10 years ago and made a lot of putts — 34 one-putts on fast, bumpy poa annua greens is unheard of — there’s something else I recall.
That Tiger Woods led the field in both driving distance — even when he was hitting his famous two iron stinger — and greens in regulation and was 14th in driving accuracy.
Woods averaged 299.3 yards — more than six yards longer than the next-best player — that week and hit 71 percent of greens in regulation when the field averaged 55 percent. And he kept bogeys off his card when the field was averaging five each round.
“It was phenomenal the way he played the game,” recalled Adam Scott.
Scott, who was also a Butch Harmon protégé at the time, almost thought better of his decision to turn professional after playing a round in Las Vegas with Woods the week before that 2000 U.S. Open. Woods set the course record at Rio Secco in 30 miles-per-hour gusting winds.
Like Woods, Scott doesn’t pause when asked which Tiger Woods was better, except he’s got a different answer.
“He doesn’t drive the ball the same as he did then,” the amiable Australian said diplomatically, “He seemed to drive the ball much better earlier in his career.”
“I never like to assume what he can and can’t do because he proves us all wrong all the time. But, you know, going off his current form, you know, I wouldn’t predict a 15-stroke victory.”
Scott wouldn’t say it, but the whispers in Tour locker rooms are growing louder; many players believe we’ve seen the best of Tiger Woods.
Johnny Miller, who has a strained relationship with Woods, thinks so, too.
"A lot of golfers get burned out around his age,” he said, “It happened with Jack (Nicklaus), it happened with me.
“Tiger will have a second career, but personally I think his best golf has definitely been played.”
I’m not sure about that. What’s unquestionably true is that Woods is no longer the intimidating force off the tee that he was in his early 20s; he’s not blowing it 30 yards by everyone anymore and hitting towering nine irons into greens while his cowering opponents have six and seven irons in their hands.
“I can’t make that swing anymore,” Woods told me at Memorial. “I don’t have the speed.
“If I had that same speed now, I would hit my driver a lot further than I do now. But I don’t have that same speed. I don’t have that same body. My body is bigger, more stable, but I’m older. Not too many of us can say we have the same speed (we had) in our teens.”
While all of that is true — a fact exacerbated by his inaccuracy off the tee — there’s something else that I think is different.
It’s what Hank Haney would tell anyone who’d listen for years: Woods doesn’t putt as well as he once did.
If he’d putted like the Tiger Woods of 2000 last year, he could’ve conceivably won three majors and at least made the cut at Turnberry.
“I’ve had stretches where I’ve kind of lost it,” he admitted to me two weeks ago about his putting, “Where I’ve been more streaky than consistent.”
And so maybe Woods is right when he places that asterisk next to the 2000 US Open because it was too reliant on putting.
But maybe that’s what he needs to rediscover.
He putted till after dark one night 10 years ago on the practice green at Pebble Beach on the eve of the Open and “just found something“.
What was it?
“I can’t remember what the key is,” he said at Memorial.
“I should remember. I need to remember!”