Fifteen years ago, Tiger Woods played the best major ever
Next week is a really big one for all of us at FOX Sports. As I’m sure you all know, the network is televising its first major golf tournament, the 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. And I can tell you our excitement is growing by the minute.
It’s a first for me personally, too. It’s my first real job. The only other paycheck I’ve earned is through playing professional golf, and, yes, I know how lucky I am for that.
Actually, it reminds me of another huge first for me, and one of my absolute favorite golfing memories: the first time I played in a U.S. Open. Only at the time – 15 years ago this week -- I didn’t have any idea how great and emotional the tournament was going to be.
It was played at Pebble Beach, the most iconic of all the Open venues, and it was also the 100th time the USGA held its national open. As cool as those things were, the most emotional part is we had lost our defending champion and friend, Payne Stewart, in a plane crash eight months earlier. I remember that, in a strange way, it felt as if he was still there with us. Even as I write this, I still miss him.
Anyway, I have a lot of great memories from that tournament for all those reasons, but the thing I’ll tell my children and grandchildren about is that I was there to personally see something historic: I got to share the course with Tiger Woods when he played the greatest 72 holes in the history of golf.
Pebble Beach was set up to be so difficult that I remember during the practice rounds wondering how I was going to break 80. Aside from the ocean views, it didn’t resemble the course we played in the AT&T each year. The greens and fairways were firm. The USGA built new, longer tees on 9 and 17. And most of all, the fairways had been significantly narrowed and were surrounded by the thickest gnarly rough I’d ever seen.
We caught a break on the first day and got calm conditions. Tiger started off with a 65, one ahead of my playing partner, Miguel Angel Jimenez. A fine start, but in the second round, the weather was about to make things nearly impossible.
In rain and wind, Tiger shot 69 -- one of only two rounds in the 60s. Due to weather delays, the second round didn’t end until noon on Saturday, and as tough as the tournament had been to that point, the third round was damn near unplayable.
The wind picked up, the air got heavier, and somehow I swear the rough got thicker. Vijay Singh shot an 80. Players Champ Hal Sutton shot 83, and Jim Furyk tied a helpless Robert Damron, when we both shot the highest round of our careers at the time with 84s. Only Ernie Els broke par in the third round. Tiger shot even par, which was made even more awesome by the fact he triple bogeyed the third hole of the round. At the end of the day, his lead was an enormous 10 shots. Els was in second place when he told the media, “When he’s on, we don’t have much of a chance.” And he was right.
On Sunday, knowing he was going to win the tournament, Tiger set an almost impossible goal for himself: Don’t make any bogeys over the last 18 holes. And you know what? He didn’t. His final-round 67 was more beautiful than the Pebble Beach scenery. Tiger won by 15 shots, and it turned out to be the first major of the “Tiger Slam,” when he won four in a row.
Last week, after watching Tiger shoot 85 at the Memorial tournament, Brandel Chamblee said Tiger has brought this on himself and that he’s to blame for destroying his game by changing his swing too many times. As another golfer who saw Tiger at his best, I totally agree. I’ll never understand why he changed his game after playing better than anyone in history, but his search for perfection is probably what made him as great as he was.
Given his recent struggles and off-course scandals, it’s easy to forget how great Tiger was in his prime. But I don’t. I was there to see it all of it. In my mind, having played in the 2000 U.S. Open is like being able to say that you were there when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths or when Joe Frazier won the “Fight of the Century” over Muhammad Ali. It was an iconic moment in sports. Although I finished last (after making the cut), a smooth 41 shots behind Tiger, I’m incredibly proud and lucky to have been there.
It’s doubtful that history will consider him the best golfer of all time, but I can say with absolute certainty that at his best, no one played golf as well as Tiger. Not even close. He came as close to golfing perfection that week as anyone else ever has. If you don’t believe me, all you need to do is watch the highlights from the 2000 U.S. Open, and my case is closed.