PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – On the eve of the most dominant performance in major championship history, Tiger Woods was not exactly the picture of contentment and confidence.
The day before the first round of the 2000 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods was grinding on Pebble Beach’s practice green. It was a session that lasted nearly two hours and drifted into twilight, with the would-be champion concerned about his speed control and lag putting on the small Poa annua greens. With only the faint light of the storefronts to show the way, he went through one lag-putting drill after another.
“I told him you’re putting great. He said ‘No, I’m not putting great,’” Woods’ swing coach at the time, Butch Harmon, recalled. “That was the gist of where he was.”
Despite the particular demands of Pebble Beach’s putting surfaces, Woods was on the cusp of the most commanding performance the game has ever seen.
He arrived at Pebble Beach having won four times already on the PGA Tour that season, and the weekend before the year’s second major he offered a glimpse into what was to come during a casual round with Harmon and an up-and-coming talent named Adam Scott.
“It was blowing 30 mph at my course in Las Vegas and Tiger doubled the 18th hole and still shot the course record,” Harmon laughed. “Adam told me afterward that he had a lot of work to do if he was going to make it as a professional.”
In retrospect, Scott wasn’t that far off. He was simply getting an early preview of what would become a seminal performance.
Woods began the week at Pebble Beach with a bogey-free 65 to take the early lead, added a 2-under 69 on Friday to extend that advantage to a half-dozen shots and teed off for the third round with a singular focus.
“I missed the ball in the correct spots,” Woods said. “You look at all my angles. I did not hit every green. I did not hit every fairway, but I always had the proper angle and gave me the best chance to get up-and-down. I poured everything in.”
The closest Woods came that week to a legitimate mortal moment came on the third hole during the third round. He found the deep rough with his approach shot and his attempt at an ultimately unwise recovery led to a triple bogey-7. Even in that moment of weakness there was nothing but resolve.
“It didn’t even phase him,” Harmon said of Woods’ third-round, third-hole miscue. “The beauty of the entire week was that he was in total control of everything he did. His swing, his putting, his mind, everything was just perfect.”
By the time Woods set out for the final round on an idyllic Sunday on the Monterey Peninsula, ahead by 10 shots, his only real competition was with himself and history. Ernie Els had the best seat in the house alongside Woods in the day’s final pairing.
Els had already endured his share of competitive abuse from Woods. He dropped a playoff decision to Tiger to begin the year in Maui and had finished runner-up to him at the Memorial, five strokes backs, two weeks before the national championship.
“I wanted to shoot a good number,” Els said of his final-round expectation. “Obviously, I didn’t feel like I had much of a chance. After six holes you could see it was over. I kind of just tried to enjoy the walk with him. It was a good walk on a beautiful Sunday.”
Els finished runner-up to Woods a total of four times in 2000 – and by a combined 28 shots. It was a unique form of psychological one-upmanship that even two decades later Els struggles to process. At the time, Els was among the best players in the world, but that was little comfort when compared to Woods, who was simply so much better than everyone else.
“Frustration always ran pretty close just under the skin with me. Growing up as a winner and then running into a guy like Tiger you could see this guy was going to be something really special. There was frustration right under the surface, but I had to deal with it,” Els said. “I kept coming back and he kept knocking us off, so to speak. It was a tough time but it was a good time.”
For Woods, it was the start of the best of times. His 15-stroke major-championship romp at Pebble Beach would be the front end of what would become the Tiger Slam with victories in 2000 at The Open and PGA Championship followed by the 2001 Masters. His nine Tour victories in 2000 would also become the high-water mark of a career defined by singular accomplishments.
“It happened to be a very special week,” Woods said. “I made everything. To be able to putt on greens this steep and bumpy as they get in the afternoon, and not miss a putt under 10 feet was saying something.”
Statistically, the 2000 U.S. Open is nothing more than a bullet point in a career littered with highlights. But it was so much more than simply his third of now 15 major championships.
If we’re keeping score at home, the 2000 championship doesn’t hold the gritty appeal of Woods' 2008 triumph at Torrey Pines on one leg or the social significance of Woods' 1997 Masters victory. And this year’s Masters breakthrough, following more than a decade of Grand Slam frustration, will also command a meaningful place on Woods' major resume.
But the 2000 U.S. Open will always stand as the performance standard for Woods. It’s the yardstick everything is measured by – was this as good as 2000 at Pebble?
“That week he played as good as he’s ever played,” said Harmon, who has coached the game’s greatest players for more than three decades. “I don’t like saying never, but I really don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”
Of all the defining moments in Woods’ career, of all the commanding performances, the 2000 U.S. Open is the one time when Woods truly played a different game.