- In 2000, he was the most incredible player golf had ever seen. In 2010, he was a pariah. In 2019, he's a beloved legend. Pebble Beach has stayed more or less the same; Tiger Woods has changed.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — A neat thing about classic U.S. Open venues is that they serve as markers in time. The golf world returns to the Shinnecocks, Oakmonts, Winged Foots and Pebble Beaches of the world once every decade or so. It’s frequent enough that golf’s legends play in multiple U.S. Opens at the same course. But it’s spread out enough that each time a legend arrives at one of these iconic sites, he’s at a distinctly different place in his career. And his life.
When Tiger Woods pulled up to Pebble Beach for the 2000 edition of this tournament, he was already the No. 1 player in the world and the biggest star since Jack Nicklaus. His last two major appearances had resulted in a victory (1999 PGA Championship) and a top-five (2000 Masters). He was 24 years old and he was the talk of the town, but he hadn’t quite put his foot to the throat of an entire sport. Yet.
That all changed with one fateful, foggy week on the Monterey Peninsula. Woods showed the entire world that he was playing a different sport than his peers, winning a major championship by a still-standing record of 15 shots.
“Tiger has raised the bar,” Tom Watson said that week, “and it seems he’s the only guy who can jump over that bar.” Watson has a knack for saying so much while saying so little. This is a perfect example. There was a sense that Woods had broken the sport, that an unbeatable combination of John Daly’s power and Ben Crenshaw’s putting—which until then existed only in imaginations or on primitive video game consoles—had arrived.
Woods was larger than life. Golf finally had its leading man. Things were going quite well.
“It's been 19 years,” Woods said on Tuesday. His math is correct. “I still remember most of the shots I hit that week.”
That week, when Tiger Woods became Tiger Woods.
In the eight years following that tournament, Woods won 11 more major championships and 45 more PGA Tour events, earned hundreds of millions of dollars, became perhaps the world’s most famous athlete, got married and built a family.
Then it all fell apart. He crashed the Escalade into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving night in 2009, and you know what happened next. The wins stopped coming. Gatorade and Accenture and Gillette dropped their endorsements. The public image crumbled. The family fell apart.
Just seven months after the legend of Tiger Woods shattered, the U.S. Open returned to Pebble Beach, and so did Tiger. He was something of a pariah—the vitriol has faded considerably since, but let’s not forget just how massive a deal that scandal was—a symbol of what fame and fortune can do to your soul, and his game was nowhere near where it had been. After he manufactured a T4 at the 2010 Masters with a pieced-together swing and some good ol’ fashioned course knowledge, he shot 74-79 to miss the cut at Quail Hollow and withdrew from the Players with a neck injury.
Still, as he always did back then, Woods found a way to put himself in contention at Pebble. He birdied the final three holes on Saturday, highlighted by a banana slice 5-wood from under the tree on the 18th fairway, to get into the penultimate group on Sunday. But he simply didn’t have it when he needed it. He played his first six holes in three over and never threatened as Graeme McDowell won his first and only major.
Woods didn’t manage another top 10 the entire season. That year wound up becoming the first year since Woods turned pro that he didn’t win a PGA Tour event…then 2011 became the second. The mystique had disappeared, and the first Tiger Woods is Done headlines hit the printing presses.
Next came the most overlooked period of Woods’ career, the 2012-13 stretch when he won a total of eight PGA Tour events, including a Players Championship, and reached world No. 1 again. But he didn’t win a major, and winning majors is really all that matters for someone like Woods, so those years have faded from memory.
Then the back went out, and Tiger Woods is Done went from a spicy take to a widely accepted axiom.
You may have heard, but Woods did something two months ago at a golf course in Georgia that proved he most certainly is not done. Winning the Masters after all he’d been through was remarkable; the universal love he’s receiving from fans, media and players is equally remarkable. He returns to Pebble for the first time as a feel-good story, a walking legend. The overwhelming sentiment is one of appreciation. Reverence, even. We thought we’d never see this again. Now we are. And it’s incredible.
While he’s a ceremonial figure of sorts, he is anything but a ceremonial golfer. Woods’ Vegas odds are inflated for every tournament, but the Official World Golf Ranking is an algorithm that’s agnostic to reputation or hype or what a player did 19 years ago, and it ranks Woods as the fifth-best golfer in the world. Apart from a mailed-in PGA Championship where he was, by his own admission, not prepared physically or mentally, Woods is coming in off three straight top-10s. In his last start at the Memorial, he struck the ball the way you need to strike a ball to win a U.S. Open. He won one of the two major championships played this year. And we know about his history here at Pebble. A 16th major championship and a second at Pebble could well be in the cards.
His game is somewhere between where it was in 2000 and 2010. His reputation is entirely different from where it was in 2000 and 2010. But the golf course is the same, as is Woods’ goal for the week.
“Looking forward to it,” Woods said. “It's been a while since we played the U.S. Open here.”
A while indeed.