Tiger Woods knows all about Hazeltine
First published in The Telegraph on the 3rd August 2016.
Of all the superstars appearing in team colours at the Ryder Cup none will have more tales to tell about Hazeltine than Tiger Woods. It was there at the Minnesota course where Davis Love’s assistant played what he considered to be his best ever shot and it was there where he suffered two of his most painful defeats.
How Woods will pray that it will be case of third-time lucky rather than bad things coming in threes, as the US look to beat Europe for just the second time in 17 years. Far better for Woods to focus on the positives and that incredible escape on the 18th during the second round of the 2002 US PGA Championship.
Indeed, if any of the players want to know how to play like Seve Ballesteros from the fairway bunker then Tiger will be their go-to man.
Woods explained: “I ended up in the left bunker up against the left side of the slope, but also near the face, as well.
“I had to stand probably an inch closer to the golf ball than I normally would, and I had to get the ball up over the lip, and the wind is coming off the left. Also, the ball was below my feet.
“I hit this three-iron that was pure; it felt so good. The most flushed golf shot I ever hit in entire life.”
“So I had to get up over the lip, over the trees in front of me and hook it at the same time so I don’t lose it in the gallery.
“I hit this three-iron that was pure; it felt so good. The most flushed golf shot I ever hit in entire life. It was one of the most magical instants when everything came together when I hit what I considered to be as near to the perfect shot as you can get. And the best thing was I made the [20-foot] putt.”
A sweet moment, but ultimately in that major Woods was to end with a bitter taste in his mouth. Chasing the then world No 73, Rich Beem, on the 15th tee, Woods told his caddie, Steve Williams, that if he birdied the hole he would take the Wanamaker Trophy.
Of course, Tiger being Tiger he proceeded to do just that and posted a nine-under total which he did not believe would be bettered.
But Beem, a former car stereo salesman, was playing to his own tune and a 35-footer on the 16th gave him the luxury of three-putting the 18th to beat Woods by a shot.
“I knew I had a lead with five holes to go and it was mine to lose, but I never thought about beating Tiger,” Beem recalled.
“I had no idea he was making four birdies. That I won was what I was most proud of, that I was able to fight off whatever demons I might have.
“Things might have been a little different if Tiger and I had been playing together. We’ll never know. The hardest thing about playing with him is that he’s so damn good you just get caught up watching what he’s doing.”
Intriguingly, having won seven of the previous 13 majors, Woods was not to win another for more than two years and many have wondered if the Beem blow was to blame. However, it is what happened when the US PGA returned to Hazeltine seven years later, which holds poll place of significance in his major career – the week when the game’s faultless front-runner was finally overhauled on the last lap.
When Woods strode out with a two-shot lead on the Sunday, nobody gave his playing companion, the Korean Y E Yang, a hope. Fourteen times before, Woods had held or shared the 54-hole lead in the majors and 14 times he had converted.
It was perhaps the most famous streak in golf, but one which his putter ignored that day.
Chance after chance went begging and when Yang, the 110th-ranked player in the world who did not take up the game until he was 19, chipped in for an eagle on the 14th he grasped a lead he was never to lose.
Woods has yet to win another major and although many things have happened in his life, and knee and back injuries have wreaked their own havoc, it is impossible not to suspect that something changed on that Sunday.
So some advice for the US team: ask Woods about the three-iron, not Beem, and definitely not Yang.