It is hard to overstate the magnitude of van Orman's accomplishment. Golf is a hard game; the U.S. Open its most demanding tournament. To be one of the 156 players who qualify requires exceptional ability and fierce discipline. To paraphrase Washington Post sports columnist Tom Boswell, golfers who "make" the U.S. Open aren't just better players than your average club champion, they're twice or three times as good. They play the game at the highest level imaginable.
And what made the 100th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach so remarkable was that one man, Tiger Woods, played the game at a level way above all the others. He beat his nearest competitors, Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez, by 15 strokes. Had he spotted them three strokes at the beginning of each 18-hole round, he still would have won the tournament by three strokes. Woods' performance at Pebble Beach was, said NBC golf analyst (and former U.S. Open Champion) Johnny Miller, "the greatest in the history of the game." And it established that Woods is unquestionably the greatest golfer ever to play the game.
You're not supposed to say that. Golf purists are forever running to the record books and dredging up data to advance the argument that Woods has still not proven himself worthy. And, yes, it is true that Woods has not won as many major tournaments as Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson or Byron Nelson or Ben Hogan. And, yes, it is also true that Woods has not yet won a British Open. But, really, who's kidding whom?
Woods isn't just better than the great golfers of yore, he's much better. He drives the ball much longer, much straighter and with much more precision than Nicklaus or Hogan ever did. His iron game is much more accomplished; he can hit all their shots and a dozen more they would never try. And his short game?chipping and sand shots and flop shots and putting (especially putting)?simply defies belief. As one veteran golf writer said Saturday: "I always hope that Tiger messes up his approach (to the green) shot, you know. Cuts it or hooks it into the bunker or something. Because his recovery shots are just so incredible. He does things no one else can do."
That he can do things no one else can do was apparent on the par-five sixth hole in the Friday afternoon round, when Woods blasted a driver into the right rough. The ball disappeared into the four-and-a-half inch grass and it seemed certain that he would have to chip back into the fairway. Probably three-quarters of the field would have done just that, but Woods had a different idea. From almost 200 yards, to a blind target, in deep, grabby rough, he slammed a 6-iron up the hill and onto the green, leaving himself a makeable 20-foot eagle putt. NBC's Miller, the game's most astute analyst, was literally flabbergasted by Woods' advance of the ball into such good position from such an awful lie.
As well as Woods played on Thursday and Friday, it was his Saturday performance that was literally breathtaking. He played the course in the late afternoon, in the teeth of a strong westerly wind. At a press conference on Friday, Woods was asked if he preferred windy conditions to calm conditions for the remainder of the tournament and he said, without hesitation, that he preferred windy conditions, because it would exaggerate the mistakes of his opponents. That's what wind does: it makes a slightly mis-hit shot (a slice or a hook or a ballooned approach) a bad shot. The assembled scribes rolled their eyes at what they perceived to be Woods' arrogance (didn't he hit bad shots too?). But on Saturday he proved his point. In that stiff, whippy breeze, when the rest of the field was shooting an average score of roughly 80, Woods shot an even par round of 71 that was astonishing for its precision, its discipline and its nearly perfect ball-striking. Nick Faldo, the great British Open and Masters champion, told reporters later that he was amazed by Tiger's performance under such difficult conditions.
Sunday's round was a formality. By the time Woods teed up his ball at the first hole, the question was not whether he would win, but by how much. Woods wasn't playing against the field, though, he was playing against the greatest performances in the history of the game. And so, after shooting even par on the front nine, he went for the record and smashed it, shooting four under on the much more difficult back nine for a final round score of 67. His combined total of 65-69-71-67 rewrote virtually every line of the U.S. Open record book. And by the end of the day, it was clear to all but the most recalcitrant that at the age of 24, Woods had emerged as the greatest player ever.
As for everyone else, well, what could they say? They played in the other U.S. Open, the one where you competed for second-place?a very, very distant second place?but ahead of all the others. And in that U.S. Open, there were some great performances. Miguel Angel Jimenez, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and John Huston all played remarkable golf that under different circumstances (read: minus Tiger) would have made for a dramatic Sunday showdown. But in reality, no one cared except for those players and their families and friends. Ernie Els, who is as good as it gets in golf by almost any measure, was reduced to being a marker for Tiger's final round. And he finished tied for second.
The only question that remains is whether Tiger can "peak" his game for the British Open and the PGA Championship, the remaining two "major" tournaments of the season. It is hard to imagine how Tiger might lose the British Open, given his length, his short game and his putting. It seems likely that he will simply overpower St. Andrews (where the Open will be played). And the PGA Championship is also being played at a venue well-suited to Woods' strengths.
But then, every golf venue is well-suited to Tiger's strengths, since he has no weaknesses. Whatever tournament he plays in, he is the overwhelming favorite. Woods has entered into what the Internet folks call an "unoccupied space." He no longer competes against the field. He competes against an unattainable perfection, a previously unthinkable standard of excellence. He'll never be perfect, but at the 100th U.S. Open he surpassed an unimaginable standard of excellence.