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'That was a pretty good dusting of the world'

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Presumably, Jack Nicklaus was kidding.

In an attempt to glean a fresh observation from the Golden Bear about the indescribable beat-down Tiger Woods rendered on the golf world 10 years ago at the U.S. Open, Nicklaus was asked where it ranked in the pantheon of great majors performances.

Graphic: Dropping boulders in Pebble

The answer seemed obvious, but maybe the verbiage wasn't. Always quick with the needle, Nicklaus cracked, "First, I need a dictionary to look up pantheon."

He shouldn't, since it's broadly defined as a temple for all deities and heroes, so he qualifies for inclusion on both fronts -- as did Woods after the god-like annihilation he delivered in 2000 at Pebble Beach, where he won by an incomprehensible 15 strokes.

"That was a pretty good dusting of the world," Nicklaus said last week. "I would think that Tiger can't wait to get back to Pebble Beach to try to do that again. Even if he plays poorly and only wins by five or six."

Only? Rest assured that Nicklaus, who played in his final U.S. Open the same week Woods smashed Pebble like a prison rockpile, laughed as he said it. That scenic week on the seashore a decade ago was characterized at the time as the symbolic passing of the torch from Nicklaus to Woods, though the scribes only got it partly right.

It was actually a blowtorch.

Padraig Harrington, who would eventually win three major championships of his own, finished in a tie for fifth -- a ridiculous 17 shots back, or more than four strokes per day.

"I was playing in the other tournament," Harrington said with a chuckle.

The one contested for second place, he meant. Woods set so many intoxicating Open records -- including the major-championship-best 15-shot margin, bettering a record set in 1862, the third year of the fabled British Open -- it made eyes blur and speech slur.

This week, the National Open returns to Pebble Beach for the first time since Woods roared on the seashore like an angry sea lion, cracking par as easily as a seal busts open a clamshell. Along the sand and rocks of famous Stillwater Cove, the field was a 155-man puppy drowning.

Woods, 24 at the time, had already won two majors, but in many ways, the Pebble Beach performance is what launched the Tiger legend. A month later he won the British Open by a record eight shots, then added the PGA Championship in August. A wraparound Grand Slam was completed the following April at the Masters.

Players at Pebble Beach tried to muster the right adjectives, a task that proved as impossible then as over the ensuing decade. The 2000 event marked the centennial U.S. Open, and Woods' performance that week ranked in the 100th percentile.

"I am definitely mortal," said Rocco Mediate, who would lose in a playoff to Woods eight years later at the U.S. Open. "I think we all are. But he's not."

This spring, Harrington recalled leaving the double-aught Open with some dangerous, daunting thoughts careening around his ever-active noggin. He felt "inadequate" as a professional.

"At that very moment, I think professional golfers were wondering, would they ever compete again with Tiger," Harrington said. "He had taken such a leap. Nobody else was capable of doing that.

"Obviously, it was a good week for Tiger, but 15 shots was a big spread. I don't think anybody at that time felt they could have done that even on their very best week. So he did look like he wasn't just one step, he looked like he was probably three steps ahead of everybody else."

Basically, the weekend was a coronation, because it was obvious early that Woods was chucking boulders around Pebble. NBC analyst Johnny Miller watched Woods practice Wednesday and was asked by his network partner, Dan Hicks, who he thought would win.

"There was this feeling of such positive vibes and a guy who was literally walking on air and in total command of his game and making the game look easy," Miller recalled. "I said, 'Tiger not only is going to win, but he is going to win by a record score.' Dan sort of rolled his eyes like, 'What, are you on drugs or something?'"

Only if reality is a controlled substance. Woods shot 65 on Thursday, the lowest score ever in any U.S. Open round at Pebble, then set records for largest Open leads after the second, third and fourth rounds. After a mere nine holes, Miller gushed on the air, drawing peals of criticism from players and agents, "Tiger is going to win this thing, maybe big."

He did, by an entire landscape, which was completely changed by his performance, especially psychologically. Those who watched both from up close and afar wondered whether they had any hope of ever beating the guy.

"I thought it was ridiculous," said Masters winner Zach Johnson, who was still an impressionable mini-tour player in 2000. "I thought, 'You know what, I'll stay very humble out here on the Hooters Tour.'"

The most inexplicably strong part of the week was Woods' performance on the notoriously small, bumpy greens at Pebble Beach, which are sodded with a grass strain called poa annua. Some pros have likened rolling balls across poa to putting across broccoli tops, yet Woods went the entire week without a three-putt, even though he hit a tournament-best 51 greens in regulation. He also finished sixth both in total putts (110) and average putts per green (1.53).

"The thing I recall most vividly is that he never missed a putt," said Jim Furyk, who played the first two rounds with Woods and later won an Open himself. "He made everything. If he missed, I don't remember it."

In fact, Woods didn't misfire from inside 8 feet all week, an unholy conversion rate on greens that fast and uneven. But characterizing it as a hot putting week would be selling Woods short. It was a 14-club thrashing.

"I didn't do anything special that week," Woods said at the Memorial Tournament last week. "Everything was just on."

Tiger's short fuse also made an appearance during that tournament. (Getty Images)  
Tiger's short fuse also made an appearance during that tournament. (Getty Images)  
If not in. The putts dropped like harbingers of doom, portending what Woods would accomplish over the next decade, yet there were signs that not all was perfect with the game's newest star. The self-absorption, ego and short fuse that helped ruin his reputation over the past six months were beginning to surface, like subtle "tells" in a card game.

The day before the 2000 event began, a series of players lined up on the shoreline at Pebble and whacked balls into the Pacific Ocean, a tribute to Woods' neighbor, Payne Stewart, the Open winner in 1999. Stewart died in a tragic jet crash the previous fall and was unable to defend his title.

"I felt going to the ceremony would be more of a deterrent for me during the tournament, because I don't want to be thinking about it," Woods said at the time, drawing only trace amounts of criticism.

Quite the sentimental type, especially since he and Stewart were members of the same club in Orlando. Later, during the completion of the weather-delayed second round early Saturday morning, Woods cranked his tee ball into the Pacific on the 18th and unleashed a profane tirade that was picked up by NBC Sports microphones. Ten years and a thousand expletives later, his image badly bruised, Woods says he hopes to finally clean up his act.

No whisk brooms were required in 2000, though. He led the field in driving distance and greens in regulation, averaging 299 yards and finding seven more greens than any other player in the field. Two other statistical curiosities really told the story: The field averaged five bogeys per day, while Woods had six for the entire week. He opened and closed the week with stretches of 22 and 26 holes without a bogey.

It was such a clinical, tactical, impeccable dissection of a major championship field that he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- identify his favorite moment of the week.

"I'd have to say the 3-footer I made on 18 [to win]," Woods smirked last week.

For Ernie Els, who finished 3 over and 15 shots back in a tie for second, it was another of the many times he got whacked by Woods, his playing partner in the final round at Pebble. In fact, Els finished second to Woods at the British Open four weeks later.

"It was a privilege just to be there," Els said this spring. "I was obviously the sideshow of the whole thing, but it was nice to be out there and see the absolute focus that the man has and the shots that he played were just incredible."

Tom Watson, who won eight majors and a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach himself, unblinkingly called it the greatest performance in golf history for several darned good reasons.

"Well, 15 is the number -- he won it by 15 shots," Watson laughed. "Nobody has ever dominated the sport like Tiger did back in that particular run. He went through a swing change, and I don't think his swing is as good now as it was then. He has a fractured knee and of course has had personal problems that have been well-documented.

"But back then, I thought he swung the club better than he does now. He dominated a golf tournament -- to me, the most important golf tournament there is, our National Open, because it's the most difficult to win in my opinion. He dominated that tournament more than anyone had ever dominated it in modern times."

Outside of one triple-bogey, Woods never blinked. His cleated foot on the throat of the field, he pressed down harder and found other sources of motivation.

"The thing I remember most is that on the 16th hole on Sunday, he had about a 12-footer for par, and he's winning the thing by 15 shots and the tournament is over, and sure enough he makes this putt and there's the fist-pumping and the celebration when he made it and we're thinking, 'This guy is going for every record there ever was and he's going to shatter everything,'" said NBC's Roger Maltbie, who tracked Woods that week. "After it was all over we asked him what that was all about and he said, 'Oh, I just didn't want to make a bogey today and that was my only goal. If I went out and played without a bogey, then I would win.'

"So, obviously, he looks at the game a little differently than a lot of others. It was hard to swing a golf club any better than he was swinging it back in that time frame."

It was such a lopsided romp, some believe the 15-shot record will stand forever. After all, the old Grand Slam mark for largest margin, 13 shots, lasted 138 years. Woods isn't so sure. "It could happen," he said last week. "I think it has to happen on hard venues, and that's the only way. If you get everyone playing a simple venue where everyone is shooting 4 or 5 under par, it's not going to happen. You can't separate yourself like that.

"You have to get on a venue where par is a good score and you happen to get super hot that week. That's the only time you can separate yourself. It just happened to be that week for me."

He didn't exactly stink it up over the rest of the decade, but the 2000 Open stands as the pinnacle of major-championship achievement, for Woods or anybody else.

"After Pebble Beach," Harrington said, "there wasn't anybody who thought even their best game was good enough."

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