Tiger Woods was poised to win his first U.S. Open six years ago, making birdie on the 489-yard 16th hole to pull within one shot of the lead on Sunday afternoon. Momentum was on his side, with the toughest hole behind him.
'These guys haven't played 16 yet,' Woods said recently, recalling that Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson were playing in the final group that day. 'We looked back there and they had just hit their tee shots on 15. So, I'm in the driver's seat if I can par in. I'm looking pretty good.'
Then he pulled a 7-iron into the bunker, missed a 5-foot par putt and watched from a cart barn near the 18th green as Stewart won the 1999 U.S. Open with a 15-foot par.
'I've relived that so many times,' Woods said.
Vijay Singh was trying to rally, and doing a fine job of it. His 69 was one of only two rounds under par that day, but a bogey at No. 16 left him in need of birdies on the last two holes, and that was too much to ask. He wound up tied for third with Woods, two shots behind. And, like Woods, he stuck around to see the conclusion.
'I was in the scorer's tent,' he said. 'I didn't have a chance of winning, but I was pretty eager to see who was going to win at that time.'
Everyone figured it would be Mickelson.
It was a dramatic week of beepers and birdies for Lefty, who carried a pager in his bag for his wife to contact him should she go into labor with their first child. He put those distractions aside and played his best golf, leading by one shot with three holes to play, and Stewart was on the ropes.
Everything turned so quickly. Stewart made an unlikely par putt on the 16th, took the lead with a short birdie on the 17th and denied Mickelson his first major with a putt for the ages.
'To travel all the way across the country when we were so close to delivering our first child, I felt very determined to make that worthwhile and get a win out of it,' Mickelson recalls. 'It was really a shock when that didn't happen. Granted, it was the way it was supposed to be. But at the time, I really was surprised, because I was playing well and I was very determined to win, and just didn't do it.'
No one begrudges the outcome at Pinehurst.
Four months after he captured his second U.S. Open, the 42-year-old Stewart was killed in a freak plane accident.
'I was one of the guys battling him out there,' Woods said. 'I have a lot of fond memories of that event, and his celebration we had back home at Isleworth when we got back, certainly some great memories from that.'
The memories are twofold at this U.S. Open.
Stewart created such a legacy at Pinehurst No. 2 that a bronze statue of his reaction to making the winning putt stands above the 18th green.
But as many of the 156 players file into the Donald Ross course in the sandhills of North Carolina, they have reason to remember the fiasco the U.S. Open became last year at Shinnecock Hills.
Retief Goosen didn't win his second U.S. Open last year as much as he survived it. The USGA allowed Shinnecock to get so dry and brittle that no one broke par in the last round, and 28 players failed to break 80. The par-3 seventh would not hold a tee shot, and it reached the point that officials had to water the green every other group.
'They don't really do justice to a great golf course if they set the golf course up like they did at Shinnecock,' Singh said. 'There's no real necessity to do that. I did not enjoy playing the weekend there, and if they do the same thing at Pinehurst, I'd rather not play the golf course that way than go out there and make a fool of myself.'
Can the USGA ruin another great course?
'They've got a lot of potential,' Davis Love III said. 'I've talked to a few of the guys and they've sought me out to say, 'What do we need to do with our course setup to not let this get away from us again?' They realize things happen, but it got away from them a little bit last time.'
Pinehurst presents enough difficulties on its own.
The identity of the venerable course is found in the greens, which are described as domed - or as turtlebacks or upside-down saucers. They are sloped severely around the edges, demanding precision like no other U.S. Open site.
Singh, the No. 1 player in the world, lacks U.S. Open and British Open titles to complete the career Grand Slam, the only things missing from his Hall of Fame career. The 42-year-old Fijian considers the U.S. Open the toughest of the four majors, demanding players to have control off the tee and on the greens, and everything in between.
'The whole game has to be good,' he said. 'And at the same time, you've got to be lucky.'
The short game plays into Mickelson's strength, for few players possess his imagination around the greens. Players can hit a variety of chips with a half-dozen clubs, although Mickelson tends to hit them all with his sand wedge.
'The golf course is one of the best we play, one of the best in the world,' Mickelson said. 'What I love about playing at Pinehurst is the USGA sets it up where it's shaved around the greens, and gives us a chance to let our short game come out, as opposed to just the thick, heavy rough where they have to chop it out.'
Mickelson is the sentimental favorite, and he already has won three times this year on the PGA Tour, making him a strong favorite. But he has struggled since winning the BellSouth Classic in a playoff, failing to contend in his last four tournaments.
As for Woods?
The Masters champion is the only player capable of the Grand Slam this year, and expectations usually are high whenever he slips on a green jacket. But this year is different.
Woods felt his fourth victory at Augusta National would be a validation of the changes he made to his swing. Instead, it has felt more like an interrogation, with people questioning whether his game truly is back.
He has never been this unpredictable.
True, he won the Masters with three perfect shots in a playoff to beat Chris DiMarco. But most people remember the bad swings on the final two holes in regulation that led to bogeys and made him work overtime.
He rallied to win at Torrey Pines and Doral. He missed the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship, ending his record streak on the PGA Tour at 142 consecutive events in the money.
Which Woods will show up at Pinehurst?
No one knows for sure, although Woods certainly is capable of a calendar Slam - remember, he won four straight majors from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters.
He was asked recently if that stretch taught him anything about the difficulty of winning all four majors in one year.
'Yeah,' Woods said. 'It's hard.'
Perhaps no other tournament is as tough as the U.S. Open, which prides itself on protecting par. Pinehurst No. 2 was relatively soft six years ago when Stewart won, starting and finishing with light rain. Even so, Stewart was the only player to break par for the tournament.
Most remember the dramatic conclusion, the star quality atop the leaderboard, and a champion who left a legacy at Pinehurst No. 2.
'I just always marvel at how good a test it was, and how well it played,' Jack Nicklaus said.
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