Tiger woods sees the world in narrow focus. Ball. Target. The space between. ESPN's Chris Berman walked up to him as Woods was hitting balls on the Pebble Beach practice range last Saturday, before the delayed start of the third round of the 100th U.S. Open, and tried to arrange an on-camera chat. Woods politely brushed him off. NBC course reporter Roger Maltbie asked Woods if he would take part in a preround interview. Woods said no. "They pay me the big bucks to ask you," Maltbie said with a smile.
Woods's expression said, They pay me the bigger bucks to say no.
Woods sees himself as an icon, one for the ages. That was evident in the stone-cold way that he went about winning his first U.S. Open and third major title, with the most dominating four-round performance in the history of major-championship golf. His winning margin was 15 strokes—two better than the record for a major set by Old Tom Morris at the 1862 British Open against a field of about a dozen—and his manner of winning was intimidating. Woods hit longer, straighter drives than anyone else. He flew iron shots that held on Pebble's small, firm greens. He never three-putted. This made even the most accomplished players look uncomfortable and unworthy. "Tiger has raised the bar," said Tom Watson, who won his only U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, "and it seems that he's the only guy who can jump over that bar."
That Tiger has raised his own standard by so much, while already the No. 1 golfer in the world, was the biggest revelation of this millennial Open. The extreme conditions of the layouts in past U.S. Opens have always exposed the holes in Woods's game. He was either a little too wild off the tee or lacked distance control from the fairway or didn't have a steady touch with the putter. But through his ceaseless work with his swing coach, Butch Harmon, he has mastered every shot in his deep arsenal.
If the goal is to beat the entire golf world into submission, Woods is practically there. In the last two years he has refined his game, and now he is the world's best driver of the ball, its best iron player, best chipper and best putter. But above all he is the game's most focused player. The week before the Open, he spent three days in Las Vegas with Harmon, and part of his preparation on the driving range at Rio Secco Golf Club involved simulating all the shots he would need at Pebble Beach. "We really didn't have to fix anything in Tiger's swing," said Harmon. "We just had to shape some shots, curve the ball a bit differently for some of the holes out there."
Still Tiger was not satisfied. On the eve of the Open, he spent extra time on the practice green at Pebble Beach even though he was putting superbly. "I didn't like the way I was rolling the ball," he said after his first-round 65, during which he needed just 24 putts. "I was making quite a few putts in practice rounds, but the ball wasn't turning over the way I would like to see it roll. I worked on it for a couple of hours and found that my posture was a little off. My release wasn't quite right." For the championship he took a total of only 110 putts, tied for sixth-best in the field.
His work ethic was the source of some controversy the day before the tournament when he skipped a ceremony honoring the late Payne Stewart, last year's Open champion, and instead chose to play a scheduled practice round. To those who criticized him for that decision he replied, "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." So much for sentiment in the march of history.
No less an authority on athletic intensity than NHL coach Scotty Bowman, who has won eight Stanley Cups, marveled at the single-mindedness of Woods's focus. Bowman walked the course with Tiger's twosome on Sunday as a USGA scorer and said, "His eye contact is right with his caddie and nowhere else when he's preparing to hit a shot. He's oblivious to everyone else."
The pursuit of perfection can be lonely, but in Woods's case it is not without passion. Even with a commanding seven-stroke lead on Saturday morning, when he hit his tee shot onto the rocks left of the 18th fairway, a microphone caught his sulfuric response. "I got a little angry and let the emotion get the better of me," he said later.
That fire was unquenchable even as he waltzed to victory. When the sun went down on the Monterey Peninsula on Sunday night, he held tournament records for the largest lead after 36 holes (six strokes), lowest 36-hole score (134, tied with Jack Nicklaus, T.C. Chen and Lee Janzen), largest 54-hole lead (10), lowest 72-hole score (272, tied with Nicklaus and Janzen), most strokes under par (12, tied with Gil Morgan, who reached that total in the third round in 1992, only to collapse and finish tied for 13th) and, of course, largest margin of victory.