U.S. Open June 2010 • Tiger Woods • Pebble Beach Golf Links

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The 119th U.S. Open gets underway tomorrow at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where America’s national championship returns to the Monterey Peninsula for the first time since 2000.

The 2000 U.S. Open was won by Tiger Woods by a record-setting 15 strokes over runners-up Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez.  Woods tied or broke nine tournament records.  His 15-shot victory not only shattered the Open mark of 11-under set by Willie Smith in 1899, it was the largest ever in a major championship, surpassing the 13-stroke victory by Old Tom Morris in the 1862 British Open.  He won wire-to-wire, becoming the first U.S. Open champion to do so since Tony Jacklin in 1970.  It remains the most dominating performance and victory in major championship history.

From the onset, Woods was the class of the field.  It appeared his opponents were playing a different golf course and in a different tournament.  On the 6th hole on Friday – a 524-yard uphill par 5 — he ripped a seven-iron from deep rough over the ocean and a cypress tree to 15 feet, where he two-putted for birdie.  “It’s not a fair fight,” said NBC course reporter Roger Maltbie.  It became Maltbie’s mantra throughout the remainder of the tournament.  “He’s going to do something this week that people will be talking about one hundred years from now,” said NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller.

“Before I went out, I knew I had no chance.” – Ernie Els, commenting on Tiger Woods’ ten-stroke advantage going into the final round.

The U.S. Open is the toughest test in golf.  The crown jewel of the 14 annual championships conducted by the USGA, the tournament aims not “to embarrass the best player in the world but to merely identify him.” Open courses are notoriously unforgiving.  And Pebble Beach was just that in June 2000.  The venerable links layout along the rugged California coast had hosted U.S. Opens in 1972, 1982 and 1992.  Wanting to begin the millennium with a memorable tournament, the USGA moved Pebble Beach up two years in the rotation in order to host the 2000 championship.  Golf’s governing body then created a set up for the par-71, 6,846-yard layout that led to widespread bloodshed.

Jack Nicklaus, who had won the Open at Pebble in 1972 and finished runner-up to Tom Watson there a decade later, was playing in his final U.S. Open in June 2000.  The field included nine past U.S. Open champions, including Curtis Strange, who was making his last appearance, as well as recent Masters winner Vijay Singh.  Notoriously absent was defending champion Payne Stewart, who had died in a plane crash less than eight months earlier.  Stewart’s death was commemorated several times throughout the week, beginning with a group of players simultaneously teeing off from the 18th fairway into the Pacific in a twist on a 21-gun salute before the start of play on Thursday morning.  Woods did not participate in the ceremony, opting instead to focus on preparing for his upcoming round.

Woods’ arrival was perhaps the most-anticipated in PGA Tour history.  A three-time winner of both the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur championship, he competed in his first Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, on a sponsor’s exemption at 16.  He turned pro at 20 in August 1996 and won twice in 11 starts, leading him to be named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.  Within ten months, Tiger had become the top-ranked player in the world, the fastest ascent in golf history.

After capturing his first major at the 1997 Masters, Woods — ever the perfectionist — rebuilt his swing, leading to a tighter, shorter and more repeatable action.  It seemed to work.  In his first seven events of 2000 he had three wins and three runner-up finishes.

Tiger knew he was going to beat you.  You knew Tiger was going to beat you.  And Tiger knew that you knew that he was going to beat you. 

On Thursday, Tiger shot a six-under 65 to take a one-stroke lead over Jimenez, capitalizing on an early starting time that allowed him to take advantage of the calm conditions.  In the afternoon, a fog rolled in over the Peninsula, forcing 75 players to have to complete their round on Friday morning.  Woods seemed impervious to the difficult weather conditions on Friday, recording three birdies over the first 12 holes.  Darkness pushed the remainder of his second round to Saturday morning, where he finished at two-under 69 to increase his lead to six shots.

Only 63 players made the 36-hole cut, which was 149 [+7].  The U.S. Open cut line includes the top 60 players and ties, plus anyone within 10 strokes of the leader.  Woods was running away from the field and only 17 players were within ten shots of him.  Conditions were brutal on Saturday.  The wind was blowing hard, the rough was deep and thick, and Pebble Beach’s postage stamp-sized greens were hard and slick.  Ernie Els shot the only round under par all day, firing a 68 to vault him into second place.  Woods finished at even par and maintained his ten-stroke margin, the largest 54-hole lead in U.S. Open history.

Sunday was more of a coronation than a competition.  Pebble Beach was buzzing.  Yachts crammed into Stillwater Cove and spectators lined the beach below the Cliffs of Doom to witness history.  Woods’ final round was a bogey-free masterpiece.  While the rest of the field was playing for second, Tiger took aim at the record books.  After playing the front side at even par, Woods birdied four of the first five holes on the back nine.  He nearly holed a bunker shot at 17 for birdie, then tapped in for par to widen the gap to 15 shots.  While Jimenez bogeyed his final two holes to fall back into a second-place tie with Els, Woods breezed to his first U.S. Open title and the $800,000 winner’s check.

After slaying Pebble Beach, the powerful Woods had captured three of golf’s four major championships.  One month later, he bested Els by eight strokes to win his fourth – the 2000 Open Championship at St. Andrews.  With the victory, the 24-year-old Woods became only the fifth player to win the career grand slam.  He was also the youngest, surpassing Nicklaus by two years.

Woods is the only player to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. 

Sports Illustrated called Tiger Woods’ 2000 U.S. Open the “greatest performance in golf history.”  It was the centerpiece of the most spectacular season the game has ever witnessed and marks the pinnacle of his brilliant career. After finishing fifth at the 2000 Masters, Woods won the remaining three majors of the season, then repeated at Augusta in 2001 to complete the Tiger Slam.  The 2000 U.S. Open victory was his 12th in his last 21 starts.  The romp at Pebble Beach was also the beginning of the most dominant golf the game has ever witnessed.

While Woods is not the greatest golfer of all time – that honor unquestionably belongs to Mr. Nicklaus  – he played a game with which even the Golden Bear was not familiar.  Beginning with his win at Pebble Beach in 2000 and ending with his third U.S. Open title at Torrey Pines in 2008, Woods won 11 major championships, finished second in four more, and posted 22 top ten finishes in majors.  He led the money list in six of those nine seasons, was second in two others, and was named Player of the Year seven times.

Tiger Woods finished the 2000 season having won nine of the 20 events he had entered.  His adjusted scoring average of 67.79 remains the lowest in Tour history.  The 2000 U.S. Open was his 100th professional start, including unofficial events.  The win at Pebble was his 20th on Tour, qualifying him, at 24, for a lifetime exemption [although he’d have to wait until 2010 to have put in the required 15 years].  An 11-time Player of the Year, Mr. Woods has 80 career PGA Tour wins, second only to Sam Snead and is the game’s all-time leading money winner.  Tiger Woods is in the field at Pebble Beach this weekend.  Will history repeat itself at the 119th U.S. Open?