Tiger’s last major win 10 years ago a testament to willpower
Hank Haney first noticed something wrong when Tiger Woods got up from the dinner table to get something to drink and stopped suddenly, bent over with his eyes closed and then held the position until he could keep walking.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a good sign,’” said Haney, his swing coach of four years.
The timing wasn’t great, either.
It was a month after Woods had surgery for the third time on his left knee. It was three weeks before the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Haney had come to Florida to start preparations for the Open, only to find out that Woods heard a crack below his left knee while hitting a 5-iron from a downhill lie a few days earlier. His doctor came to the house on May 31 to go over results from an MRI — shredded ligaments in his left knee, a double stress fracture in his lower leg.
The first round of the U.S. Open was 13 days away.
“My immediate thought was I had the rest of the year off,” Haney said.
Woods had other ideas.
“He said, ‘I’m playing in the U.S. Open and I’m going to win it,’” Haney said. “Either me or him asked the doctor what would happen if he played, and it was just a question of how much pain he could endure. That preceded him saying, ‘Let’s go practice.’ And he left him sitting there on the couch.”
And thus began the most improbable of the 14 majors Woods has won.
It was 10 years ago that Woods, having not walked 18 holes since the Masters, endured 91 holes of the U.S. Open that included three double bogeys on the opening hole at Torrey Pines, a 12-foot birdie to force a playoff and more pain than he cares to remember.
That major — his last one at the moment — remains the greatest testament of his will to win.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Woods said.
Woods had not played since the Masters, and Mike Davis of the USGA was getting nervous. He had decided to put the top three players in the world — Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott — in the same group for the opening two rounds. Davis heard from Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent, before the pairings were released. He told Davis that Woods was planning to play and would be in San Diego. That was as far as he could go.
“He essentially told me what was going on with Tiger’s leg,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Hardly anyone knows about this, please don’t say anything to the USGA.’ I didn’t tell anyone, but I remember looking at Mark and saying, ‘So he’s going to play on a broken leg?’”
Woods arrived a week early and played Torrey Pines in a cart, with no media or fans around. Then, he drove north to Newport Beach for a few rounds at Big Canyon, his home course in southern California. He was wearing a knee brace. It wasn’t going very well.
He shot 53 for nine holes and lost eight balls.
“I was still trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to try and play with a knee brace,” Woods said. “Because my knee was moving all over the place.”
Driving down to Torrey Pines, Woods said he threw the brace out the window.
Steve Williams had not seen Woods since he caddied for him in the final of the Masters. Woods was runner-up by three shots and had arthroscopic knee surgery two days later. Williams at least had an idea what was going on from Haney.
“Hank had been with him at Big Canyon on Friday and Saturday,” Williams said. “He said he had no business playing this tournament.”
Williams knew better. He had worked for Woods nine years, including the stretch where Woods held all four majors at the same time. In all those years, he had never heard Woods talk about a major the way he did the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
“From the moment the USGA announced they were holding it at Torrey Pines, Tiger had a goal to win that tournament and nothing was going to stop him,” he said.
It was their lightest week of work — nine holes on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. That was it.
“He was in agony, there’s no two ways about it,” Williams said. “His form in the practice rounds would not indicate he’d be holding the trophy. Generally you come to these tournaments and get an idea how the week would go. That was the complete opposite.”
Jordan Cox had just finished his sophomore year at Stanford when he qualified for his first U.S. Open. Conrad Ray, the Cardinal coach, played at Stanford with Woods and tried to arrange a practice round.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to happen,” Cox said. “Tiger had been taking time off. I went to make a time for a practice round, I was already on there with Tiger.”
Bubba Watson joined them for nine holes Monday and Tuesday.
“There must have been 10,000 people. The hole was perfectly framed,” Cox said. “Bubba hits this high cut 330 yards. Tiger pipes it down the middle. They announced my name, and you could tell everyone was thinking, ‘Who the hell is this?’ I started making practice swings and the club felt air. I’ve never felt that level of pressure. I stood over the ball just praying I’d make contact.”
He didn’t notice Woods being in pain and didn’t know the extent of the injury until much later.
“He had a level of control over the golf ball that I had only dreamed he had,” Cox said.
Cox missed the cut with rounds of 80-77. He keeps a photo in his living room of him and Woods at Torrey Pines. “Every time I see it, I remember the experience. Incredible,” Cox said.
Mickelson was the only healthy member of the Big Three that day. Scott had broken his hand when a car door slammed on it. It wasn’t enough to keep him from playing.
“Once they announced that group, it was maybe the most anticipated first two rounds of a major ever, except for Tiger going for four in a row, at least in my time,” Scott said. “It was 25 deep on both sides of the fairway Thursday morning.”
Woods opened with a double bogey, made another double on the back nine and shot 72, four shots behind. In the second round, he shot 30 on the front nine (he started on No. 10) for a 68 that left him one shot behind Stuart Appleby going into the weekend. It was clear he was hurting, but no one knew the degree.
“Not many,” Woods said, eventually mentioning his coach and trainers, doctors and wife. “Definitely single digits.”
Why not share what he was going through?
“No need,” he said.
He never mentioned Williams on that list, but the caddie knew. Williams said the most valuable help came from Keith Kleven, Wood’s trainer in Las Vegas, who worked on him every night in the Torrey Pines Lodge. “Each and every day he finished, Keith went to work on Tiger’s leg,” Williams said. “His form got a little better each day.”
The U.S. Open went to prime time on Saturday, and so did Woods. The third round ended at 10 p.m. on the East Coast, and Woods dazzled with a 60-foot eagle putt, a chip that flew into the cup for birdie on No. 17 and an eagle on the par-5 18th for a one-shot lead.
But he began revealing some of the hurt, especially when his left knee buckled on certain tee shots.
“I was able to convince myself that the shots were going to hurt, yeah, because my leg was busted,” Woods said. “But I could make a golf swing at impact. Post impact is when I was going to feel it. And I just convinced myself to go ahead and suck it up and hit the shot. It’s going to hurt afterward, but I can still hit a good shot.”
Woods played with Robert Karlsson that day. His caddie was Gareth Lord, who now works for Henrik Stenson.
“One thing really sticks in my mind,” Lord said. “On top of all the madness he’d done the first 17 holes, the only shot he had on 18 was a big, high carve. That didn’t seem to hurt. He stood on the tee. He’s shifting, and I heard his leg crack into place. And he smashes it into the middle of the fairway. And then on the green, the noise ... I’ll never forget it. It was like The Beatles.”
Not only had Woods never lost a 54-hole lead in a major, he had never trailed going to the 18th hole. But he was one shot down to Rocco Mediate, a 45-year-old with back trouble. Needing a birdie on the last hole to force a playoff, Woods was in the rough, 101 yards from the hole. He went with a 60-degree wedge and it came out perfectly, 12 feet to the right of the cup. The putt wobbled and bounced and tumbled and swirled in the high side of the cup, and Woods furiously pumped both arms as he looked to the sky.
Haney usually walks with him, if nothing else to figure out what they needed to work on in the weeks to come. He knew Woods was going to shut it down, so he spent most of the final round in a corporate tent.
“My mom used to tell me if you find a penny, pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck,” Haney said. “Right before he hit that putt, I looked under the table and there was a penny. I picked it up and stuck it in my pocket.”
Woods needed one more rally, one more birdie on the 18th, in the Monday playoff against Mediate, and then he won on the 19th hole — No. 7 — when Mediate pulled his approach near the grandstand and made bogey.
Woods knew it was his last event of the year, maybe longer.
So did those around him.
“I was sitting on the plane ready to take off to go home when he called me,” Haney said. “He said, ‘Great job this week, thanks for all your help.’ And then he said, ‘We’re done for the year. I’m getting my knee operated on next week. I’ll be in touch.’”
That was his 14th major, four short of catching Jack Nicklaus. Few could have predicted that 10 years later, he would not have added to the total.
Woods had reconstructive surgery on his left knee a week later. The following year, he lost a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time when Y.E. Yang beat him at the PGA Championship. The greater collapse was off the course toward the end of 2009 when Woods was caught in multiple extramarital affairs that led to divorce. And right when his life and game were starting to stabilize, his back broke down and required four surgeries.
To win another major might be his greatest accomplishment considering all he’s been through.
For now, winning a U.S. Open on one leg remains an unimaginable feat.
“One, I don’t know how he managed to get around. And two, he won the tournament,” Scott said. “He had that ability to will putts into the hole, and will trophies into his hand.”