PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – In memory, the third Sunday in June 2000 along this Monterey Peninsula registers like a painting, like something that exceeded the familiar so drastically that it wound up seeming only vaguely attached to reality. Now that the U.S. Open reconvenes at a place that barely looks real anyway, that long-gone Sunday does come up in conversation.
“I still remember most of the shots I hit that week,” Tiger Woods said Tuesday, a case in which a voluminous memory turns out to be a gift.
That Sunday - June 18, 2000 - Woods finished off a week in which he led by one shot after Thursday, by six after Friday, by 10 after Saturday and by 15 after Sunday, breaking a margin-of-victory record that lived up to the adjective “all-time,” having stood for 138 years since Old Tom Morris won the 1862 British Open by a mere 13.
Nowadays, Woods speaks as a 43-year-old who all but vanished from view mid-decade, then won the Masters so loudly and strikingly in April, a happening that refurbished his relevance here. Nineteen years have passed. Ernie Els, who finished tied for one of the world’s more hopeless seconds that day, is 49, and the field includes his 22-year-old nephew, Auburn’s Jovan Rebula.
Amateurs playing here such as Duke’s Chandler Eaton and Oklahoma State’s Viktor Hovland had gotten to age 2, while Georgia Tech’s Noah Norton and Oklahoma State’s Austin Eckroat had inched their way past age 1, while UCLA’s Devin Bling still negotiated life at eight months old. Then there’s Michael Thorbjornsen, the U.S. Junior Amateur winner from Wellesley, Mass., 17 these days, unborn those days.
Somehow, that old day might help. “That I missed the ball in the correct spots,” Woods said. “The only real trouble I had, I just happened to catch a gust of wind and ended up making a debacle on No. 3 in my third round.”
The indignity of it!
“Other than that, you look at all my angles. I did not hit every green. I did not hit every fairway. But I always had the proper angle. And [that] gave me the best chance to get up-and-down. I poured everything in.”
Discussion turned, as it does, to the poa annua of the greens. “It was just one of those weeks,” he said, “where I don’t know how I pulled it off, but on seaside poa annua, I never missed a putt inside 10 feet for a week.” If there’s one thing that transcends the years, it’s bumpy, moody poa.
A reminder that 19 years had passed came in the form of Woods’ knowing tone as he spoke of the injury Monday night to the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. In that vein, an athlete all of 43 spoke.
“It was sad,” Woods said. “As athletes we’ve all been there to that spot where you just know it, that something just went, and can’t move, can’t do much of anything. And you can see it on his face, how solemn his face went. He knows it when things pop. You just know. And I’ve been there. I’ve had it to my own Achilles’. I’ve had it to my own back. I know what it feels like. It’s an awful feeling. And no one can help you. That’s the hard part.
“And whether he has a procedure going forward or not, or whatever it is, his offseason, and what that entails, that’s the hardest part about it is the offseason or the rehab . . . That’s what people don’t see, is all those long hours that really do suck. And why do we do it? Because we’re competitors. As athletes our job is to make the human body to something it was never meant to do and to do it efficiently and better than anybody who is doing it at the same time. Well, sometimes things go awry. And we saw it last night with Kevin.”
At the sixth U.S. Open for Pebble Beach Golf Links - past winners: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Woods, Graeme McDowell - Els reasonably spoke of the third. That 2000 Open became the third of Woods’ 15 major titles. It became the first of his four in a row, with wins at St. Andrews, Valhalla in Louisville and the Masters still coming. It became something else, a leader board almost inconceivable with the black, over-par numbers of Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who finished at 3 over, below the red, under-par 12 of Woods.
“On the back nine, it was like a victory walk for him,” Els said. “But remember Tiger back in those days, he was very intense. He was really playing every shot a hundred percent to his ability, and he was not backing off one inch. I remember he made a putt on 16 for par and he was fist-pumping, and I was like, ‘The tournament is over.’ 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 a sideshow and people knew they were watching history being made, the first guy to go double-digits under par and so forth . . . So he had a lot going for him. His swing was unbelievable. He was hitting it a long way past most of us and in total control of every aspect of his game. I’m sure he had a good time.”
Woods went 65-69-71-67. He spoke to then-caddie Steve Williams on No. 18 about feeling so tranquil, and he came to the media tent and began, “Well, I guess I won.”
The customary American crazy talk centered that week on whether his rivals were too concessionary. “He’s only 24 years old,” Els said then. “It seems like we’re not playing in the same ballpark right now. When he’s on, you don’t have much of a chance. This week, myself, with my own game, I played one good round of golf. But still, I guess if I played out of my mind, I probably still would have lost by five, six, seven. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s an understatement, probably.”
And: “He’s near-perfect.”
Now, Williams will caddie for Jason Day. Woods, whose back woes rendered him immobile a few years back, doesn’t relish pursuing Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors as much as he feels grateful just to participate. “The game was taken away from me for a few years there,” he said. Pebble Beach reminds what loss he must have felt.