Commentary

Is Pebble a boulder for Tiger?

Originally Published: June 12, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- If only he could go back to the way he was playing then, to the swing that saw him sweep through three major championships, to the dominating days of 2000.

If only it were really that easy, to win a U.S. Open by 15 strokes, to have the golf world in awe, to use words never before uttered to describe a golf performance for the ages.

And if only Tiger Woods did not have that history to live up to while still in the prime of his career yet struggling to find his game, his swing and his life.

The U.S. Open returns to historic Pebble Beach Golf Links, where Woods was the only player to finish under par 10 years ago in an accomplishment that still resonates today.

As he attempts to win his 15th major championship and first in two years while trying to put behind him a scandal of epic proportions, there have been many who have wondered why Woods ever abandoned the swing that brought him to such heights a decade ago.

At the very least, the 2000 U.S. Open offers plenty of fodder.

"I was there," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said recently. "I was playing in the other tournament."

His reference, of course, was to the fact that it became clear very early that everyone else was playing for second that week.

Woods opened the tournament with a 65. He led by 6 shots through 36 holes after a second-round 69. He increased his advantage to 10 strokes through 54 holes, after a third-round 71. And with a bogey-free, final-round 67, Woods won by a whopping 15 strokes.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Eric RisbergTiger Woods lapped the entire field at Pebble Beach to win the 2000 U.S. Open by a record 15 shots.

His total of 272 tied a U.S. Open record, and he set a major championship record for margin of victory that had dated to 1862, when Tom Morris Sr. won the British Open on a 12-hole course at Prestwick.

Ernie Els, who had won two U.S. Opens to that point, was paired with Woods in the final round and was left to wonder about the future.

"It seems like we're not playing in the same ballpark right now," Els said in 2000. "When he's on, you don't have much of a chance. ... I guess if I played out of my mind, I probably still would have lost by 5, 6, 7. He's a phenomenal player. That's an understatement, probably."

Asked this year about Woods' Pebble performance in 2000, little had changed in Els' estimation: "I'm not sure about other generations, but in our generation, that was just unbelievable stuff. It was a privilege just to be there. I was obviously the sideshow of the whole thing there, but it was nice to be out there and see the absolute focus that the man has, and the shots that he played was just incredible. So it was quite something."

Woods led the field in driving distance, averaging 299.3 yards off the tee. He also led in greens in regulation at 70.8 percent. He played bogey-free during the first and fourth rounds and shattered the record for margin of victory in the U.S. Open (11), set by Willie Smith in 1899.

To put it in perspective, Jim Furyk shot 84 during the tournament, Vijay Singh 80, Colin Montgomerie and Davis Love 79, all of which points to the difficulty of the venue.

Mike Davis, the senior director of rules and competitions for the United States Golf Association, said you had to all but throw out Woods' score when fairly assessing how the course stood up to the best players in the world.

"If you look at it, there was no drama in the championship that last day," Davis said. "You knew he was going to win. But it was just ... magical. You think, 'I can't believe what we're watching here.' And remember, the guy triple bogeyed the third hole [on Saturday], or he would have won by 18."

The victory gave Woods 20 on the PGA Tour (he now has 71) and three major titles (he has added 11).

"I think at that very moment, professional golfers were wondering would they ever compete again with Tiger," said Harrington, who tied for fifth at Pebble that year. "He had taken such a leap. Nobody else was capable of doing that.

"Obviously it was a good week for Tiger, but 15 shots was a big spread in the field. I don't think anybody at that time felt they could have done that even on their very best week."

Woods was in the midst of winning seven of 11 major championships, but at that point had captured only the 1997 Masters and 1999 PGA. He finished fifth that year at the Masters and posted victories at the Mercedes, Pebble Beach, Bay Hill and Memorial.

So it wasn't as though Woods' playing well was a surprise.

But to open the tournament without making a bogey for 26 holes? Or to lead by six strokes after 36?

"I played with him the first two days; he just had a lot of control over the golf ball," Furyk said. "He was able to draw the ball at will, cut the ball at will. He was hitting it solid. And he made more 12-footers when he needed to ... whether it was for birdie or for par. And it's not like those greens are smooth. He hit the ball beautifully."

NBC analyst Johnny Miller remarked to lead announcer Dan Hicks during the telecast that he felt the tournament was over as early as the 14th hole of the first round.

Ten years later, Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion, said "that was the greatest performance in the history of the modern game.

"He went 72 holes and never lipped out one putt. You have to sort of think about that for a minute. He never hit the hole one time without it going in. And the greens are not nearly as good as [they are now]. That was the greatest putting performance I've ever seen. He was at the top of his game. That year was like a Bobby Jones year."

The 6-stroke lead he carried into the third round could have been very tenuous because three holes in, Woods made a triple bogey. Still, nobody got close to him, as Woods birdied two of the next four holes.

Denmark's Thomas Bjorn was paired with Woods that day, having shot 70-70 to stand 6 back, tied with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez. The conditions were difficult, the wind blew and Woods' even-par 70 extended his lead.

"I think that was the week and the summer when we saw exactly what he was capable of," said Bjorn, who shot 82 that day. "He took a triple bogey on the third, and from then on, virtually every single shot he played was struck perfectly, and I have never seen anyone do that either before or since. He was in complete control.

"I think that performance is the one that stands out in golf history. It was an extremely difficult U.S. Open course and he just showed what he is all about. It was very, very special and I got to see him make history."

Sunday, of course, was nothing but a coronation. Woods parred the first nine holes and had a goal of making no bogeys. He finished with a 4-under-par 67, the low round of the day, making history with every step.

A month later he would win the Open Championship at St. Andrews to complete a career Grand Slam, then became the first (and only) player in the modern era since Ben Hogan in 1953 to sweep three majors in a season by capturing the PGA Championship in a playoff. He would also win the 2001 Masters to hold all four majors at the same time.

Two years later, Woods had completed a stretch in which he won seven of 11 majors and eight total. He was just 26, and it was a matter of when, not if, he would get to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

But after finishing second at the 2002 PGA Championship, Woods decided to ditch his longtime swing coach, Butch Harmon, saying he could go it alone.

For the next two years, Woods did not win a major championship, having started working with swing coach Hank Haney in 2004, and has since parted ways with the instructor. The move away from Harmon and to Haney has always been controversial, but it was hard to criticize when Woods added six more major championships, a slew of PGA Tour titles and achieved an overall consistency that saw him contending much more often.

Just last year, Woods won six times, finished out of the top 10 just twice, but failed to win a major championship, amid more whispers about Haney's methods not working. The cries became louder this year as Woods returned from his self-imposed leave from the game. Miller, among several analysts, said Woods needed to go back to his 2000 swing.

"Sometimes you have to get off the fork in the road and get back to what brung you there and what won all of these championships for him," Miller said.

Not so easy, Woods said.

"I don't have the same speed, I don't have the same body," Woods said. "My body is bigger, more stable, but I'm older. Not too many can say they have the same speed in our teens that we have now."

Over the years, Woods has maintained that he is a better player now than he was then. He attributed the 2000 U.S. Open to a phenomenal putting week. He has said that he feels he has better "ownership" of his swing than he did then, that he is a much better ball-striker.

And he rarely speaks of the 2000 U.S. Open in the glowing terms that so many others have. He won't even say it was his best tournament, typically grouping the 1997 Masters and 2000 Open Championship with it.

"That was a pretty good dusting of the world," said Nicklaus, who played in his last U.S. Open that week. "I would think that Tiger can't wait to get back to Pebble Beach and try and do that again. Even if he plays poorly and only wins by 5 or 6."

Nicklaus was smiling, joking.

But Woods does not look at it with humor. He knows it is an impossible task to live up to, and anything judged against it will likely fall far short, something to which his game will always be compared -- right or wrong.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com