He is returning again, perhaps for the last time, to the scene of the sublime. Tiger Woods is competing in another U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. It conjures memories of a championship performance likely unparalleled in the annals of the game.
In the 2000 U.S. Open, Woods dominated like no one ever had, shooting 12 under par on a layout on which no one else could crack red figures. He won by a record 15 shots. It wasn’t a perfect performance, for no round or tournament ever is, but his victory was perfectly executed in relation to par and the field.
“He was really playing every shot a hundred percent to his ability, and he was not backing off one inch,” said Ernie Els, who was paired with Woods in the final round and ended up tied for second with Miguel Angel Jimenez. “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. 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.”
There is a sense that Woods, who missed two years of competition because of back problems, is poised to make more history this week in the 119th U.S. Open. A victory would give him four U.S. Open titles, tying the record held by Willie Anderson, Bob Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. It also would constitute his 82nd win on the PGA Tour, which would tie Sam Snead’s all-time mark.
Woods was just 24 years old in 2000. His eye-popping victory was just his third in a major. He now owns 15 after capturing his fifth Masters title in April, ending a drought in majors dating to his playoff victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
At 43, he can’t do the things he did in 2000. Then again, no one, at any age, could possibly replicate that performance.
“Yeah, it's crazy. It's been 19 years. I still remember most of the shots I hit that week,” Woods said in a press conference Tuesday as he prepared for his 21st U.S. Open start. “It was just one of those weeks 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. I did the same thing at Torrey, too.”
OK, different Tiger. And yet not different – not in his mind, which still is sharp and carried him to victory at Augusta National as much as his swing did.
His approach to Pebble Beach will be no different than nearly two decades earlier when he pounded the course and bruised a lot of egos.
“That part really hasn't changed that much,” he said of the strategy he’ll employ this week on the par-71, 7,075-yard layout. “Because the golf ball is going further than it did back in 2000, I’m slower than I was in 2000. Apples to oranges, I guess you could say. I am about the same distance. And so the golf course really doesn’t play that much differently for me. It’s just a matter of putting the ball in the right spots.”
Woods, ranked No. 5 in the world, definitely was not himself last month at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, site of his second U.S. Open win in 2002. He missed the cut by a stroke and was 17 strokes behind eventual winner Brooks Koepka, the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion, after two rounds. He admitted he wasn’t in the best health at Bethpage, but said nothing more than, “I was in rough shape.”
At Augusta, however, his game was top-notch. And with one more day of preparation to go before his opening round at 2:09 p.m. PDT, he sounded like he is close to that level again.
“I feel like I'm trending in the right direction,” said Woods, who is paired the first two rounds with past U.S. Open winners Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth. “I need one more day of prep. I want to see the golf course when it's a little bit closer to game time. I don't want to – I know they're holding it back. But I just want to see, how much are they going to let it go and show us how it’s going to be come Thursday.”
With so much emphasis on that amazing performance here in 2000, easily overlooked is the T-4 finish Woods submitted in the 2010 championship at Pebble Beach. He made only four starts and had 13 competitive rounds under his belt prior to the U.S. Open that year as he returned the tour following a lengthy hiatus for personal reasons. And yet he began the final round in third place before a closing 75 left him three behind winner Graeme McDowell.
The setup of Pebble Beach this week resembles more the 2010 edition, not 2000. The Tiger Woods of today is closer, naturally, to the 2010 version. “Yeah, it’s not the same body I had back in 2000,” he said with a grin.
You want to make comparisons? The fairer comparison is to 2010. Woods will never recreate those four glorious days 19 years ago. But his mind and experience and competitive instincts pushed him to a near-victory nine years ago. After his win in April at the Masters, who knows where those talents will push him in the coming days.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.