Friday, June 18, 2010

June 18, 2000: 12 under

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - The wind was howling, the rain coming down hard. The ball was in the deep rough, more than 200 yards from the hole. Between the ball and the hole was a large cypress tree - oh, and the Pacific Ocean. Seems like a perfect time for the sensible golfer to lay up, take a par, and move on.

Not Tiger Woods. Nothing he did this week was sensible or ordinary. And when his approach shot - the one out of the rough, over a tree and the ocean, fighting the wind and the rain - landed within 15 feet of the hole, everybody else should have taken it as a sign that the tournament was over.

Most of the scores posted during the 2000 U.S. Open reflected the weather's impact. Pebble Beach is a tough course in perfect conditions, but the rain and the wind were howling in 2000. A score of 3 over was good enough for second place. But then there was Woods' score, a score that stood out so impressively and improbably that it had to be a misprint, a score that made it look like he was playing a different course than everybody else.

12 under.

Woods had wowed golf fans before. His performance at the 1997 Masters was jaw-dropping in its brilliance. But he had only one major since, and the whispers started about whether he would live up to the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders at such a young age.

But then 12 under happened, and everybody stopped doubting.

On its own, 12 under doesn't seem that impressive - after all, he had gone 18 under in winning the Masters three years before, and players routinely break 12 under in non-Majors. But he became the first player in the 106-year history of the U.S. Open to hit double-digits under par for the tournament, and his 15(!)-shot victory set the standard for all Major championships.

Woods started strong, getting a break by playing his first round in calm conditions on Thursday morning. His opening 65 was the low round of the tournament, but it left him only 1 shot clear entering the second round.

The wind and the rain picked up in round 2, and the scores plummeted. While players were taking turns falling down the leader board, Woods was improbably climbing, posting a 2-under for the day, including his impossible approach shot on 6, to push his lead at the halfway mark to 6 shots.

In the U.S. Open, the 36-hole cut line is usually set at the top 60 players and ties, plus anybody within 10 shots of the leader. In 2000, only 63 made the cut, the lowest number ever. That's because only 17 players were within 10 shots of Woods. It was only Saturday, but the tournament was already over.

Woods shot an even-par 71 in the third round, but still extended his lead to 10, as the weather continued to wreak havoc on the field. The weather clamed down for the final round on Sunday, but that only gave Woods an opportunity for more birdies. His 67 was the low round of the day, and punctuated a remarkable weekend.

The U.S. Open was the start of a three-month stretch where Woods was untouchable. He set scoring records in the British Open and the PGA Championship later that summer, firmly stamping his place at the top of the golf world. But for all his success that summer, and in the future, he likely was never better than he was in the four days of the U.S. Open. It's possible nobody ever played as well as Woods did that June.

(The aforementioned iron shot - over the tree, et al - is at 1:12 of this highlight package)

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