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Oral history of Tiger’s (arguably) greatest shot

11 Min Read

Long Form

Twenty years ago in Canada, Tiger Woods hit perhaps the most audacious shot of his incredible career

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Tiger Woods’ approach on the par-5 18th at the 2000 Bell Canadian Open

    Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 26, 2020.

    A single grain of sand.

    Had it slipped between Tiger Woods’ 6-iron and golf ball, one rogue grain could have sunk his hopes of winning the RBC Canadian Open in 2000, becoming the first since Lee Trevino in 1971 to win golf’s Triple Crown – the U.S., British, and Canadian Opens in the same year.

    So was it the ultra-fine margin? The stakes? The absurdly improbable physics of the shot itself?

    Yes. Yes. And yes. All of these things compelled Scott Verplank, among others, to call it “the greatest shot I’ve ever seen in my life,” Woods’ 218-yard masterstroke from the wet sand at the par-5 18th at Glen Abbey. Woods’ caddie Steve Williams would return to the bunker once the commotion had died down, still struggling to get his head around what he’d seen. Others have made the same pilgrimage and tried to visualize what Woods had, tried to feel what Woods felt, for this was magic.

    Many lost sight of the ball; the sky was too gray, the raindrops too distracting, the ball too high. Or maybe it was Woods himself -- having scorched a 380-yard drive to set up an eagle on the hole two days earlier and bidding to win for the fifth time in seven starts and ninth time that season -- who was flying too high. What people saw when they got to that bunker was the row of greenery down the right side that blocked any view of the pin, and the yawning lake waiting to claim another victim, and the safe and sensible bailout area to the left.

    Woods, perhaps, saw none of these things.

    Herewith, an oral history of perhaps the most audacious shot of his incredible career:

    Woods, 24, was eight wins into his masterpiece season, when he would set or tie 27 TOUR records. As an amateur, he had finished 11th in the rain-shortened 1996 Bell Canadian Open at Glen Abbey. Now, naturally, there was heavy speculation about whether he would return.

    Bill Paul, former Canadian Open tournament director: “I began talking to him about coming to Glen Abbey at the beginning of the 2000 season, and by August, I was 98% sure he would play, but if you announce it and he changes his mind, that 2% magnifies to 2,000% because people are so disappointed. I started preparing with all the additional spending on bussing and food services and security. I never told anybody; people thought I was crazy.”

    A week before the tournament, Woods lost the made-for-TV Battle of Bighorn to Sergio Garcia – whilst battling the flu. Some now feared that he’d skip Canada, but he announced three days later, on a Thursday, that he would indeed come to Glen Abbey.

    Paul: “Within 20 minutes, there were helicopters flying over Glen Abbey, TV stations wanting interviews. Staff worked until 2 a.m. that night to handle ticket requests, and on Friday, we had a line outside my office over four football fields out the front gates of Glen Abbey, all of them wanting tickets. It was mind-boggling. I had to stop ticket sales Sunday morning.”

    Woods (on camera): “This golf course is tailor-made for my type of game, guys who hit it high off the tee and high into the greens generally do well here. I played well in ’96 and my game has improved, and hopefully I can play well again in 2000.”

    The day Paul had to stop ticket sales, Grant Waite, a 36-year-old New Zealander with a single PGA TOUR victory, finished second to Rory Sabbatini at the Air Canada Championship in Vancouver. It was a bittersweet result, and Waite vowed to win next time he got the chance. It came quickly, as he shot 69-64 to get into contention again at Glen Abbey. Woods, commanding huge crowds, opened with a lackluster, even-par 72. The next day, though, he went birdie, eagle, birdie, eagle on holes 15 through 18, signed for a 65, and also got into contention, four back.

    Bob Weeks, Senior Reporter, TSN: “In those days, we had a separate Canadian broadcast, and I was out walking with one of the earlier groups as the on-course reporter for their rounds, and I don't think I went on air once. No one was interested in anyone but Tiger.”

    Grant Waite: “Tiger was at a different level than I was, but I was feeling pretty good about my game and what I was doing. I played with him in ’93 at Byron Nelson when he was 17; he hadn’t won the U.S. Amateur at that point. That was really before the whole Tiger Woods aura had kind of begun. You could tell that he was really good; he was very raw in his game. He hit the ball very far. He was an undeniable talent. You could tell that he was going to be successful.”

    Woods shot 64 in the third round, Waite 68, including a missed short birdie try on 18. They were tied at the top at 15 under and had a date for the final round. Waite had played with the legends of the game, though, once going toe-to-toe against Jack Nicklaus, and was unintimidated.

    Waite: “I’d played with Jack in the final round of the 1988 Australian Masters, when I’d been a pro for only four or five months. It was a little bit shocking standing on the first tee and seeing this guy you’ve watched on TV. It was blowing 25 mph, a very, very difficult day, and Jack shot 77 and I shot even-par 73 and finished third. Greg Norman won. Jack didn’t play particularly well, but I learned that the player you’re paired up with can’t stop you from executing your shots. I carried that with me when I played against Tiger in Canada.”

    Waite and Woods traded final-round birdies until the par-5 16th, where Woods birdied from 12 feet and Waite failed to convert from slightly farther away after an indifferent third shot. Woods found trouble at 17 but got up and down from the greenside bunker for par. They were still separated by a shot as they came to the 508-yard, par-5 18th. With the skies gray and fans holding umbrellas, Woods lost his tee shot into the right fairway bunker. Waite split the fairway.

    Bill Paul: “I remember it being cloudy and it was drizzling; the rain was starting. I remember thinking how much I hoped they would get this in. There were so many people out there.”

    Waite hit 5-iron to the fat of the green, well left of the pin – the sensible play and one that would leave him with an easy two-putt birdie. To hold him off, Woods would likely need to also make birdie, and he faced the choice of laying up or going for it from the fairway bunker.

    Paul: “Grant was in a great position. He had a long eagle try, and at worst a birdie.”

    Steve Williams: “I certainly got the required yardage should Tiger decide to lay up, but knowing how he thinks, there was no doubt in my mind he was going to try and knock it on the green.”

    Sandra Post, eight-time LPGA winner and former TSN broadcaster: “I was standing in the fairway, about 20 yards away. It was getting dark. The air was a bit heavy. He had a pretty good lie. He needed to make 4. I don’t know what was going on in his mind; probably aim left and cut it a little bit.”

    Waite: “He needed to make birdie, not eagle. The prudent play would be left of the flag where the green is a little bit wider. He’s a smart golfer, great course manager, so in my mind I was anticipating his ball going to the middle of the green.”

    Paul: “I never saw anyone go at that back-right pin from the right of the fairway or the bunker. The odds are totally against you. There’s an oak tree on that corner that blocks the hole. I was standing behind the green and everyone thought he was going to bail out; most players would hit their second shots to the end of the fairway to leave themselves a short wedge into the green.”

    Weeks: “Not only was he going over water to a small part of the green, but there were thick spruce bushes on his right side which blocked a direct line to the pin. I didn’t think there was any way he would go for the pin. I thought he might play to the left-center of the green or even the back bunker to be safe. Then I distinctly remember when he took his stance, my jaw dropped – it was clear where he was going.”

    Woods could not see the pin, but at the height of his powers, he had it in his mind’s eye. He set up left of it, took a mighty rip – and absolutely flushed his 6-iron.

    Post: “I remember the sound. You could hear the speed with which the clubhead went through, and the crisp contact. Then there was the waiting, and him watching it with those eyes. The ball seemed like it stayed up there forever; I think people lost it.”

    Waite: “When he made contact and the ball was to the right, I thought, ‘Oh, his ball is going to go in the water.’”

    Bill Kratzert, ESPN’s on-course reporter following the last group: “Bruce Devlin was out there with me, and I think he said, ‘Kratzy, that looks a little right.’”

    Although the ball did appear to take off too far right, it never left its tiny target, landing short of the pin and trundling past it before settling on the green’s back collar. The crowd erupted.

    Weeks: “When the ball landed, the roar shook the ground.”

    Kratzert: “The contact had to be perfect, and he didn’t even flinch. Maybe he did push it, but I’m gonna say he pushed it 15 feet, max. It was one of the top two shots I’ve seen him hit.”

    Williams: “Tiger hit an incredible amount of brilliant shots whilst I was caddying for him. Given it was the 72nd hole with the tournament on the line, the approach shot to the 18th hole at Glen Abbey from the fairway bunker at the 2000 Canadian Open tops my list.”

    Woods (on camera): “That one shot I did hit, it was pretty good, but you know what? I didn’t hit the green; I hit it over the green, so it wasn’t really that good.”

    Waite: “One grain of sand between the clubface and the ball could have changed my life for sure, but it didn’t. Tiger, at that time, couldn’t do anything wrong.”

    Paul: “To me, it was everything that went on that week, and the prior four to six months to get him there. That shot was the last chapter of the book; it felt preordained.”

    Waite missed his eagle putt, settling for a birdie that Woods matched after chipping his third shot to tap-in range. Afterward, although it was nearly dark, some eyewitnesses felt compelled to return to the scene of the shot, as if still disbelieving what they’d just seen.

    Williams: “Following the presentation, when it had all quietened down, I walked back to take a second look at what was an incredible shot – 218 yards from wet sand, water short, bunker left that leaves a difficult up and down. Absolutely has to hit every bit of a 6-iron and then some. A very fond memory from one of the great TOUR events.”

    Weeks: “After all the press conferences (where Tiger joked that ‘I pushed it a little’), I walked out to the spot with a colleague and looked at the line he took. It was ridiculous to me that he would ever contemplate hitting that shot with the tournament on the line. It just shows me how much confidence he had in his game at that point.”

    Many have tried to recreate the shot. Harold Varner III succeeded in hitting the green with a 5-iron, but now it’s harder than ever, if not impossible, to do so. (Glen Abbey is no longer the host course for the RBC Canadian Open.)

    Post: “It’s my hometown, so I’ve played Glen Abbey a lot. People always try to recreate it because he made it look easy, but you try carrying it over water 218 yards from wet sand, over the corner and to a target you can’t even completely see, with everything on the line.”

    Waite finished his career with one victory, at the 1993 Kemper Open, and five runner-up finishes. Now 55, he lives in the Orlando area, where he’s a teaching pro and still competes.

    Waite: “I lost twice in a row to birdies on the last hole, but to play at that level two weeks in a row is exceptional for most of us. I talked to Tiger, and he said, ‘Yeah, that was a little bit right of where I wanted to go,’ but that was about it. He said I’d forced his hand, that he felt compelled to take the shot on. So at least I made him work for it. There’s not too many times you finish second and people remember it. Bob May, I’m sure, has the same thing going on with the (2000) PGA. I shot a tournament record at 21 under and lost. Tiger shot 22 under. The next guy was 15 under, Sergio Garcia. But such is life in competition. It was an incredible shot.”

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.