What was it like to compete against Tiger Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open? From this caddie’s perspective, the championship was over Thursday when Woods shot 65.
Woods had made believers of us all by that point. Even the stoic veterans who were grizzled from major championship battles (not that I fit the description). Caddies, by nature and training, understand anything can happen in a golf tournament. Anything. Van de Velde, anyone? Remaining in the present, focused on the shot and situation at hand, is imperative to success. Just because a player has executed to perfection for 68 holes doesn’t necessarily mean he will follow suit on the final four. The work isn’t done and no lead is safe until the scorecard is signed. The Tour is filled with great players who can make a charge and catch any leader. There’s time for savoring, later.
Besides, this was a major, the national championship for crying out loud brimming with unpredictable conditions played atop the minuscule often bumpy seaside poa annua greens of the grand, fierce test, Pebble Beach. The history of the U.S. Open reads like a Stephen King novel for some, packed with crashes and disaster lurking on every swing.
“Wonder who will finish second,” said a caddie with a major title to his credit as we watched Woods go deeper in the red on the scoreboard beside the driving range. “He’s got another one.”
Over. Done. Finished. Give him the trophy and save us all time.
Maybe it was Friday by then and Woods had stretched his lead to six shots with a second-round 69. The week started with record heat, and delivered fog thick enough to cause delays followed by a blast from Pebble’s punishing wind that wreaked havoc on scorecards Saturday morning.
The feelings from those days, however, are unforgettable. It was obvious we were caddying during an era that might include the best golfer in history.
Amateur accomplishments aside, Woods was different from the start on the PGA Tour where many decorated rookies have fallen.
He received sponsor exemptions into seven PGA Tour tournaments in the fall of 1996 no different than other top amateurs and college stars who turned pro. Most hoped to earn enough money in those starts to gain conditional Tour status or bypass the early stages of qualifying school. Woods turned his invites into two victories and a two-year exemption, beating Davis Love III, top-10 in the world, in a playoff in Las Vegas.
The 12-shot victory at Augusta in 1997 was unbelievable, but the heater he was riding into Pebble in June of 2000 was ridiculous. Woods won eight times in 1999, including the PGA Championship, his second major. According to Bob Harig’s ESPN.com story earlier this week, the 2000 U.S. Open was Woods’ 100th start as a pro. He arrived on the Monterey Peninsula with 12 wins in his previous 23 starts and four titles in 2000.
I had a front-row seat for the shot that clinched one of those four trophies, just four months earlier at Pebble Beach. The tournament finished on Monday due to inclement weather. Woods trailed by seven shots when the round began but started charging. I was caddying for Jerry Kelly in the group ahead and we had an amateur or two in our group. The amateur tee on the 16th at Pebble is directly behind the 15th green. I walked up and turned to look down the 15th fairway. Woods spun his 97-yard approach into the cup for eagle and the 54-hole leader, poor Matt Gogel didn’t have a chance. It was Tiger’s sixth consecutive PGA Tour victory.
Jerry shot 67 and tied for fourth. So, we came to Pebble Beach feeling pretty good ourselves, hoping to build off that success in the second consecutive U.S. Open appearance for us both.
Kelly played well that week. He shot 73-73 to easily make the cut and then, like everyone else in the bottom half of the field, ran into the worst weather of the week on Saturday morning. Retief Goosen discussed the difficult conditions earlier this week during his World Golf Hall of Fame induction speech, recalling how he climbed 30 or 40 spots with a 72, ended up tying for 12th, and earned an exemption into the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, which of course, he won.
Kelly shot 81 in the third round as did our playing partner Sergio Garcia. Still, we bounced back with a classy 71 on Sunday to tie for 37th. I stayed for free in a house just outside the Pacific Grove gate to 17-Mile Drive, ate fresh seafood and drank like royalty every night, may have even slipped over to play a few sunset holes on the epic Pacific Grove Muni.
It was a great week. We lost by 26 shots.
At that time, with that equipment, clubs, shafts, balls – Woods was playing a different game. On the par-3 12th hole, for example, playing roughly 200 yards, Kelly – and the rest of the mortals – were trying to scoot a 4-iron into the small opening at the front right of the green, hoping the ball stayed on the firm surface, so they could two-putt for a par and move on. In the final round, Woods hoisted a 5-iron that landed softly. He tapped in a 20-footer for birdie.
Nobody broke par in the U.S. Open. Woods reached double digits. He was No. 1 in the world and the rest didn’t matter. The victory gave him the first leg of his Tiger Slam, which culminated the following spring in Augusta. Nobody again will hold all four major trophies at the same time. Records fell every week as Woods raised the bar higher and higher, never higher than those four days at Pebble Beach when he humiliated the field.