Commentary

For Tiger's best of 2008, it's not just about his triumph at Torrey

Originally Published: December 19, 2008
By Bob Smiley | Special to ESPN.com

In 2008, Tiger Woods tallied somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,300 official golf strokes. And with the exception of a half-dozen penalty shots and a couple of drives that ricocheted off people's heads, most of them were pretty dang solid. After all, this was a year when the only thing that separated Tiger from winning every tournament he entered was a measly 5 strokes.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
David Cannon/Getty ImagesTiger Woods doesn't look happy about his third shot on the par-5 18th hole at the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year. No matter. Woods drained the long birdie putt and went on to win the event.
Yet, 10 shots stood out from the rest. Each fulfilled the two biggest factors when judging the merits of a golf shot:

1. The specific shot's degree of difficulty.

2. The consequences if he hadn't pulled it off.

Some you can guess without even looking, some you may have forgotten. A few went mostly unnoticed. Let the countdown -- and debate -- begin:

No. 10: The Masters, Friday, 18th hole
Already down by 7 shots, Woods seemed about to become an early footnote in the year's first major. Making things worse, he was playing his third shot to the 18th green from a downhill/sidehill lie … from the 10th fairway. CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz joked that he had seen only one other person play the hole from over there -- himself. After caddie Stevie Williams paced off the distance on foot, Woods opened the face of his wedge and lobbed a towering shot that barely cleared the front right bunker, checked up and trickled left, leaving him a 5-footer for par. He made it, keeping his name at the bottom of the leaderboard -- and in everyone's heads -- for the rest of the week before finishing second to Trevor Immelman.

No. 9: Accenture Match Play, Wednesday, 17th hole
When Woods and J.B. Holmes arrived at the 17th green, Tiger had just made back-to-back-to-back birdies at Nos. 14, 15 and 16 to dig his way out of a 3-hole deficit. With both of them looking at 40-footers for eagle, it appeared they would halve the hole with two-putt birdies and settle things on 18. Woods thought otherwise and drained his fourth straight bomb to go 1 stroke up with one hole to play. Holmes could only chuckle. His wife? In tears. Woods lived to play another day.

No. 8: WGC-CA Championship, Monday, 15th hole
Golf fans typically don't tune out when Woods plays the back nine of a final round. But it was just after 9 a.m. in Miami, with rain having pushed his last seven holes at Doral to Monday morning. Plus, Woods started the morning 5 shots back with plenty of major winners between him and the lead. The only person who hadn't written off Tiger was Tiger. His tee shot at the 175-yard par-3 15th started dead at the pin and stayed there. It bounced once and stopped an inch from the cup, making it the best shot of the year that (almost) no one saw. After tacking on another birdie at No. 17, he lost by only 2 strokes.

No. 7: Dubai Desert Classic, Sunday, 17th hole
As Woods left the ninth green on Sunday in Dubai, he looked at the leaderboard and told Williams that he could win only if he were to post a final-nine score of 30. Seven holes later, he walked to the tee at No. 17 tied for the lead. The 17th hole is listed at 359 yards, but in a straight line to the green it's "merely" 320 yards across a half-acre of dense palm trees and desert wasteland. Woods took his driver and made his hardest swing of the season. Then he waited. When the fans at the green let out a roar, Woods knew he was in position to make his fifth birdie in eight holes. He ended up shooting 31 on the back nine, which was still good enough for a one-shot win over Martin Kaymer.

No. 6: Arnold Palmer Invitational, Sunday, 18th hole
Woods called his approach into the 18th hole on Sunday his best swing of the week, but there's no doubt that the 20-foot putt that followed was the better shot.

Although it was a line similar to a putt he had made on the same hole back in 2001 to beat Phil Mickelson, things were different. Woods hadn't won at Bay Hill since 2003, and his putting had been off all week, thanks in large part to microscopic nematodes that left patches of dead grass all over the greens. He came to the 72nd hole tied with Bart Bryant but amazingly hadn't made a single putt more than 18 feet all week. Despite the statistical evidence, Woods made the putt anyway, slammed his hat to the ground and won his fourth straight event of the season. Back in the scorer's trailer, Bryant laughed, popped the rest of a granola bar in his mouth and headed for home.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Harry How/Getty ImagesTiger Woods and caddie Steve Williams celebrate Woods' eagle putt on the par-5 13th hole during the third round of the 2008 U.S. Open. The monster putt was part of an amazing stretch of golf for Woods and played a key role in winning his 14th major.
No. 5: U.S. Open, Monday, 15th hole
It was 86 holes into the U.S. Open, and Woods and Rocco Mediate found themselves, almost unbelievably, tied once again. Mediate, who had already taken back strokes on Nos. 11, 12 and 14, hit another fairway and another green at the tight par-4 15th. Woods, on the other hand, had pushed his drive so far to the right that he found a fairway bunker on a completely different hole. The ball was below his feet, and the green was blocked by a tree, but Woods couldn't risk laying up. He lashed at the ball, wrapping the club around his back with his follow-through, and somehow managed to hit a high draw. Fans joined Woods in the bunker for a better view and watched in awe as the ball landed on the green and settled 10 feet away. It wasn't just one of his best shots of the year, it arguably was one of the best trouble shots he's ever played.

No. 4: Dubai Desert Classic, Sunday, 18th hole
Although Woods had made a birdie at the drivable 17th, he still needed at least one more to keep pace with Ernie Els, who also was at 13-under but playing in the final group four holes behind him. After hitting a sweeping draw off the tee at the dogleg-left par-5 18th, a four seemed inevitable. But Woods' flushed 5-wood from 225 yards flew the green. Then, his pitch shot back down to the hole came out soft, leaving him having to make a downhill 25-footer that even the Tiger-loving sheiks in the luxury boxes didn't think he'd make. When it rolled into the center of the cup, Woods fired a fist pump toward Abu Dhabi, and a stunned British announcer could only surmise: "I don't know what they pay him to be here, but he's worth every penny."

No. 3: Tie, U.S. Open, Saturday, 17th hole; U.S. Open, Saturday, 18th hole
With only two holes to go before the final round of the U.S. Open, Woods was down by 2 shots to clubhouse leader Lee Westwood. And every superstitious golf fan was thinking the same thing: that Woods had never won a major when he didn't have at least a share of the 54-hole lead. His drive on No. 17 was painful and way right. His approach was short and left, hanging on the steep grassy bank above the left greenside bunker. It looked as if Woods would have to make up two shots with an eagle on 18. Instead, he one-bounced his pitch shot straight into the cup for a birdie.

Then, for good measure, he went ahead and eagled 18 anyway with a perfectly paced, downhill 40-footer that everyone assumed he would make. Within that 12-minute stretch, Westwood went from having the 54-hole lead by 2 to not having it at all.

No. 2: U.S. Open, Saturday, 13th hole
Woods would never have had the 54-hole lead if not for what he did back on 13. After a blocked drive and a 5-iron that briefly left the Earth's atmosphere, Woods had to make up more than 50 feet from the back edge of the green down to the hole. It swept right to left, and if he made the mistake of hitting it too hard, he theoretically could putt it off the green and another 40 yards down the hill to a place where Phil Mickelson had spent much of his Saturday afternoon. His pace was perfect, and so was the line. Five feet from the hole, Williams knew it was in. Two seconds later, so did every fan within two miles of the 13th green. And with the eagle, a limping Tiger resurrected his chance for a 14th major.

No. 1: U.S. Open, Sunday, 18th hole
No other shot in Woods' year, and possibly his career, held the tension of Sunday's 12-foot putt for birdie on the 72nd hole at this year's U.S. Open. The stakes could not have been more clear. If he were to miss, he'd lose. And as we learned a week later, he would have lost despite fracturing his tibia in two places during rehab from surgery on a course that is more dear to him than nearly any other, and, oh yes, be done for the rest of the season.

The right-to-left break in the putt wasn't severe, but the punishment of a week of tournament play had taken its toll on Torrey Pines' greens, and Woods could see that it would be a bumpy journey from his putter to the cup. Telling himself that all he could do was make a good stroke and hope, Woods hit it firm and kept his head down. Like his famous chip-in shot on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters, this, too, fell in on the high side of the cup, setting the stage for another 19 holes on Monday and a victory that Woods later called his "best ever."

Bob Smiley is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage and the author of the new book, Follow the Roar, about his adventures tailing Tiger Woods for the entire 2008 season. He can be reached at bobsmiley77@gmail.com.

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