Down to his last ball, how Tiger avoided disaster and still won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15

Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 11, 2019.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It was an unlikely place to be in a spot of bother, unless you were down to your last golf ball. The views from the 18th tee at Pebble Beach are among the best in golf. A morning round of golf, with the waves from Stillwater Cove crashing beneath, can be good for the soul.

But Woods was in no mood to take in the alluring vista. It was a Saturday morning, and he was completing the delayed second round of the 2000 U.S. Open. He had just hooked his tee shot into the ocean. And there was Woods, his hand held out, somewhat annoyed that Steve Williams had yet to give him a ball.

The caddie knew what the golfer didn't, and so he wanted Woods to hit another club. Woods was having none of it, steam coming off the water and out of Woods' ears.

"I don't want to sound negative, but he hooks it into the ocean and now we're down to our last ball,'' Williams recalled in a recent interview. "He was adamant he was hitting a driver for the second shot. We had a bit of an argument. I know it's our last ball. There's OB [out of bounds] right, water left. I can honestly say it's the only time I was actually shaking.

"He hit a great drive in the middle of the fairway. But his ball is directly in line with that tree [in the right-center of the fairway]. He wants to hit a big cut out over the ocean, and I can't tell him [we have one ball left]. I thought the nervousness was over after the tee shot, but it continued. I couldn't say anything.''

The completion of the second round began early that morning. What Williams did not realize was that Woods had taken several balls out of his golf bag the night before to practice putting in his hotel room. Woods never put them back, and Williams didn't notice -- until Woods tossed one to a fan coming off a green. Now there were just two left.

"I wanted to go to that kid and ask him for the ball back,'' Williams said. "But I couldn't do it.''

"He told me about six months later. And my reaction? 'What the f---!'" Tiger Woods, on learning from caddie Steve Williams he had one ball left in his bag in the second round of the 2000 U.S. Open.

"I hit one halfway to Hawaii,'' Woods said of his tee shot at the 18th. "All of a sudden Stevie suggests I hit iron off the tee and I did not say nice words to him at that time. So, I went ahead and hit iron. And I had a simple 4-iron to the green and Stevie wanted me to hit it up the right side of the hole and I said, 'Why do I want to go up the right side?' So I started it out to left over the ocean to cut it back and it just went long over the back and I got up and down for a bogey. I knew something was up but I didn't say a word.''

Woods finished the second round with a 69 and a 6-shot lead over Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

And Williams' exhale could be felt on the other side of the Pacific.

The U.S. Open returns to the Monterey Peninsula this week for the third time. And 19 years later, Woods' win remains among the top feats in the long history of the game.

And one of the more interesting sidelights of the tournament was the conundrum Woods faced if he, indeed, had no golf balls left to play.

Had Woods run out of golf balls, he faced the prospect of a 2-shot penalty -- for violating the one-ball rule if he used a fellow competitors' ball; or for "undue delay'' if Williams or someone in Woods' group needed time to find him one. (At the time, Woods was playing a prototype Nike ball that would not have been available for purchase in the pro shop.)

And it presented one of the great "what if?'' scenarios of the tournament. What if, say, Woods, had hit that ball from the fairway and it didn't cut back to the green but instead went into the water? First, he would have needed a golf ball, and would have almost assuredly faced a 2-stroke penalty -- either the time it would have taken to locate one of his golf balls, or for violating the one-ball policy. Then there would have been the penalty drop. He would have been hitting his eighth shot to the green. Even with a 1-putt, that's 3 more strokes than he took -- and that second-round lead shrinks from 6 to 3.

Woods was never aware of that potential problem until well after the tournament.

"He told me about six months later,'' Woods said recently. "And my reaction? "What the f---!'

And it turned out to be the only drama for him and Williams during the course of a record-setting tournament that would end with Woods' third major title and 20th PGA Tour victory.

The 100th U.S. Open was Woods' 100th PGA Tour start, and it came at a place where he had won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am a few months earlier by storming back from 7 strokes down with seven holes to play.

He had won the PGA Championship the year prior, tied for fifth at the Masters and had won 12 of his previous 23 tournaments. In 11 tournaments that year, Woods had won four times and finished outside of the top five just once. And at age 24, he was the No.1-ranked player in the world.

"There was almost a feeling he was saying, 'I'm this good and the rest of you are this poor.' That was almost the feeling I got. It was a case of him being so much better than everybody else at that moment in time." Thomas Bjorn

If there was any doubt that Woods was going to win, Paul Goydos had his mind made up before the first tee shots were in the air. He played a practice round with Woods on Wednesday, along with Mark O'Meara and John Cook. He predicted afterward to a couple of reporters that Woods would win by 10.

"They scoffed at me,'' Goydos recalled. "I remember walking away knowing there was nothing I could do to what he was doing.''

Goydos offered up an example about the par-3 12th hole.

"The green is rock hard and the green is not very big,'' he said. "I can't hit a shot that carries the bunker and stays on the green. It's 200 yards downhill. I hit a 4-iron and I flew the bunker and it one-bounced and went into the rough over the green. So Tiger gets up there and hits a shot straight up into the air. And it flies over the bunker and stops 4 feet from the flag. I looked at him thinking he hit a hard 7-iron, and I asked him what he hit, and he goes 4-iron. 'What?' The ball had re-entry burns on the way down. He had such control of the ball. He took 20 yards off it, threw it straight in the air, and hit it exactly as far as he wanted.

"OK, then we get to 18. It's reachable [in 2 shots] in the summer. I had 230 to the front and hit 3-wood into that green. And Tiger was on the right side of the fairway, about 230 from the green and he has an iron in his hand, and he hits this rocket to the green. It lands on the green near my ball. So we're walking up and I ask him what he hit. '4-iron.' 'What?' He hits his 4-iron as far as I hit my 4-iron and he hits his 4-iron as far as I hit my 3-wood. That's not even fair. He hit a 4-iron 195 on 12 and a 4-iron 230 into 18 and landed both exactly where he wanted to. I remember thinking, 'What are we doing here?' That's crazy golf.''

Others would say similar things.

Woods opened the tournament with a 65 and never looked back. He had six birdies and no bogeys over the par-71 course and made it look easy. The second round was marred by that bogey on the 18th hole, but he still shot 69 to finish 36 holes at 8 under. He led by 6 shots.

"I always enjoyed playing with Tiger,'' said Jesper Parnevik, who along with Jim Furyk played with Woods during the first two rounds at Pebble Beach. "I always played well for some reason. He was special to play with. During those years when he was so good, I would say what was most impressive was his focus. I said he could will the ball in the hole by just looking at it. That's what it seemed like.

"At Pebble, those greens were not perfect by any means. They were very bumpy -- Poa [annua, the type of grass on the greens]. A lot of traffic. They were actually quite firm. I think me and Lance [Ten Broeck, Parnevik's caddie] were going through his rounds, we couldn't figure out if he didn't miss a putt under 20 feet the first two days. Which is amazing around there. It was things like he did back then. Of course, he played well and his short game was incredible and he putted like a god. Just very hard to beat.''

One of the highlights of the tournament was the 7-iron shot Woods hit during the second round from the rough on the par-5 sixth hole. From four-inch rough, over a tree (that no longer exists), past a second fairway and onto the green from 205 yards.

The shot was so incredibly ridiculous that NBC-TV's Roger Maltbie explained: "It's just not a fair fight.''

"Tiger's approach shot out of the thick rough over the tree on the right-hand side of the sixth hole was a very gutsy shot,'' Williams said. "One part of Tiger's game when he was in his prime that didn't get mentioned very often was his ability to not only advance the ball seemingly impossible distances from thick rough, but also his ability to control the distance from what would appear to be an absolute rip of a swing.

"I remember that shot well and know for sure no other player would attempt that shot going for the green. Tiger has a great ability to see the shot and then execute it. His brute strength allows him to hold the club face square and somehow control the distance. Tiger would not think about the potential dangers if a shot like the sixth hole didn't come off. Instead, he focused completely on the shot that's required and his mental will would seem to enable him to hit some incredible shots from heavy rough.''

Because of a weather delay, Woods' second round did not begin until late in the afternoon, and the group was not going to finish. A horn signaling a suspension of play sounded when Woods was on the 12th green. He was allowed to finish the hole -- and rolled in a 30-footer for birdie, with his trademark upper-cut celebration. ESPN's Mike Tirico signed off the broadcast with, "Good night!''

"It was pretty amazing,'' Furyk recalled. "Under control of the golf ball both right to left and left to right. He drove the ball beautifully. Control of his irons as far as distance control, flight of the ball, curvature of the ball, was very impressive. It's the U.S. Open. When he did make a mistake, he putted beautifully on some really crusty, bumpy Poa greens. They're tough to putt on. He seemed to roll it in from 15 feet quite often as well. If you're going to dominate a major championship and win by that many, I guess that's how you do it.''

Even after the golf ball issue on the 18th hole and subsequent bogey, Woods had the biggest lead through 36 holes of any U.S. Open, one of nine tournament records he matched or set.

He played the first 22 holes without a bogey, as well as the final 26.

But there was an unusual hiccup during the third round. On the third hole, Woods' approach came up short of the green, but not in a bunker. He then needed two swipes to get the ball out of some serious rough. He still needed 3 more strokes to get down for a triple-bogey 7.

"He hits his 4-iron as far as I hit my 4-iron and he hits his 4-iron as far as I hit my 3-wood. That's not even fair. He hit a 4-iron 195 on 12 and a 4-iron 230 into 18 and landed both exactly where he wanted to. I remember thinking, 'What are we doing here?' That's crazy golf." Paul Goydos

Few players can win a tournament making a triple-bogey, even fewer a major championship. But Woods still led by 6, and when he made a birdie at the seventh hole, he was back to even par for the round. He ended up shooting even-par 71, still the second-best score of the day. Ernie Els was the only player to shoot under par with a 68 that jumped him from a tie for 30th into second place and a final-round pairing with Woods.

"He was on a different level and that week was probably his finest golfing moment,'' said Bjorn, who shot 82 playing with Woods. "The golf course was tough and there was no room for error. When you're not perfect and not completely on in a U.S. Open at the time, you get marginalized so easy. And I did. I remember walking around the back nine knowing I was going for big numbers and I just tried to stay out of the way. I was playing in the last group on a Saturday and I literally felt like I probably shouldn't be here. It was so easy to get drawn into that with him."

Woods' biggest memory from that day? Making up for that triple-bogey.

"I just wanted to get back to even par,'' Woods said. "Somehow, some way, if it was going to take me all day to get there, I'd figure out a way to get back to even par for the round. That's what I was thinking. And I was able to do that.''

The third-round 71 helped increase Woods' lead to 10 strokes over Els, who leapt more than 25 players to get to a tie for second -- but a whopping double digits behind Woods. It was the largest lead through 54 holes of a U.S. Open.

"The enormity of it doesn't really hit you at the time because you are playing a tournament,'' said Els, who shot 72 that day and finished in a tie for second with Jimenez. "But afterward, reflecting back, it was very special.''

With a 10-shot lead starting the day, Woods gave himself a goal of not making a bogey, one that he figured would erase any chance of being caught.

"When I got to 16 and had that 15-footer, that was all I was thinking about," he said. "Bury it. Don't make a bogey. Do what you set out to do. And I buried it. And I did the first pump because, to me, that putt, that par, meant so much. That putt meant more to me than people might think.

"Playing 18, I could have easily hit driver down there, but I knew it was a 3-shot hole, so I hit a 4-iron down there, a 7-iron layup and then a wedge to the green and make a 2-putt par.

"What not many people know is, if you watch the video of the last hole, I hit the first putt past the hole and when I go to mark it, you can see me almost fake slam the ball into the ground because I was pissed that I had run it by the hole so far. It was 4 feet by. And now I'm thinking I could 3-putt and make a bogey after I fought so hard all day not to make a bogey, and I'd end my U.S. Open on a bogey and it would ruin the day. So I was steaming. Granted, I was going to win the U.S. Open, but I cleared my mind, made the putt and it was the perfect cap to the week.''

Els, a winner of four major championships and in the World Golf Hall of Fame, had his own frustrations as they related to Woods. In 2000, he was runner-up in the first three majors, twice to Woods. And he was second to Woods five times, more than any other player.

"Growing up a winner and then running into a guy like Tiger, there was some frustration under the surface,'' Els said. "But it was a good time. I won a lot of tournaments around the world at that time myself. I wasn't quite winning the tournaments he was playing. I guess that was the frustrating thing.''

Woods' 272 total matched the lowest score in U.S. Open history. Nobody else was under par. His 15-shot margin of victory remains a major championship record; Tom Morris Sr. had the previous record of 13 shots, set during the American Civil War at a 12-hole Prestwick layout that was played three times, winning by 13 shots in 1862 over a field of just seven other players.

For the week, Woods' scores were 65-69-71-67; he had 21 birdies, 44 pars, six bogeys, one triple. He did not have a single 3-putt.

"I putted so well that week. And the funny thing is, earlier in the week I wasn't putting well,'' Woods recalled. "I was a little off. I was having a little trouble consistently hitting my line. I was making putts in the practice rounds, but I just didn't feel right. It was weird. I was hitting too many pulls. So, I went to the putting green Wednesday and just putted and putted for more than two hours and found it. My hands were just a hair too low, so I raised them and that allowed me to release the blade down the line. Everything clicked from that point on.

"I hit it great. And on Poa annua greens, I never missed a putt inside 10 feet for the week. Not missing a putt inside 10 feet on Poa is a pretty good stat. But it starts with the ball-striking. I was hitting it so well that I was leaving myself, even on those greens, how small they are, with a lot of uphill putts. Having those uphill putts, especially on Poa because it gets a little bumpy, makes all the difference in the world.''

After winning the U.S. Open, Woods would go on to win 10 of his next 22 starts, including three more majors to complete what has become known as the "Tiger Slam.'' In all, he won 23 of 46 starts during that period.

It was an amazing run that saw Woods win seven of the 11 major championships played from the PGA Championship in 1999 through the U.S. Open in 2002.

As for the U.S. Open, and a performance that might never be matched, Woods recently acknowledged just how good it was, but added:

"I actually played better at The Open that year.''

Of course, he won by just 8 at St. Andrews a month later.