The man following Tiger Woods around Pebble Beach had won the Stanley Cup eight times and would hoist it again two years later. But he would keep the memorabilia from this day. Scotty Bowman was the greatest coach in NHL history. He was also one of two official USGA scorers for the final group on the final day of the finest performance of Tiger Woods’s career.
“I saw,” Bowman says now, “probably as great a game as you could ever see.”
Woods returns to Pebble Beach for a U.S. Open this week, 19 years after he won the event by an astounding 15 strokes. Woods is 43 and enjoying a career renaissance. Bowman is 85 and has seen 10 lifetimes worth of incredible sports moments. Watching Woods decimate the field at Pebble is right near the top.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “You get pretty close. I’ve seen a lot of athletes in my day, but you talk about concentration, when he’s playing golf … I’ve had a few players like that. Once the game starts, they’re in a zone.”
Woods was not the only one in a zone that week. The fans were, too. USGA scoring supervisor Joe Wortley remembers an official scorer telling him this story that Saturday:
Woods’s playing partner, Thomas Bjorn, hit a wayward tee shot. Bjorn had to go outside the ropes to get to his ball and hit his next shot. When Bjorn tried to get back inside the ropes, the fans didn’t want to let him in. They didn’t realize he was a golfer. They had been so focused on Tiger that they didn’t even recognize the guy who was paired with him.
That’s what Tigermania was like back then. There was really nothing like it in sports. He was playing the same course at the same time as other golfers, but he seemed to be playing a different sport.
To understand the magnitude of Woods’ greatest triumph, you need to remember this: we did not know, at the time, that it would be his greatest triumph. Woods was only 24 years old. He had won the Masters by 12 strokes at age 21, decided to rebuild his swing, and then won the U.S. Open by 15. He did it even though he had a triple bogey on Saturday. We knew he did not just have a magical week.
He had risen to a level that even Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordan and Serena Williams have never reached. Woods was Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes by 31—if Secretariat could keep competing in Triple Crown races for 30 more years.
It felt like Tiger had broken golf.
Nearly everybody who watched was in awe: fans, other golfers, the world’s most famous athletes. The greatest coach in hockey history was no different. He just happened to be standing closer to Tiger on Sunday.
Woods didn’t really needed to be in a zone that day. He had a 10-stroke lead on his playing partner, Ernie Els. He was in a zone anyway because he is Tiger Woods. He promised himself he would not to make any bogeys in the final round—an ambitious goal for anybody in a U.S. Open on any day. Bowman remembers Woods’s string of pars to begin the round—nine in all. The coach marked down the scores after each hole, tore off a sheet to give to somebody waiting behind the green, then raced to the next tee, and then …
“Then,” Bowman says, “Tiger started getting some birdies.”
Woods birdied 10, 12, 13 and 14. He didn’t need birdies, wasn’t even really thinking about birdies, but he couldn’t help himself. He finished, as he promised himself, with no bogeys. He was playing conservatively, yet his 67 was the low round of the day.
Els said afterward, “Anything I say is probably going to be an understatement. It seems like we’re not playing in the same ballpark right now.”
Golf is not, by nature, a predictable sport. But Woods had made it seem like it was. He had yet to win a British Open, but he was playing so well that recently retired Royal and Ancient secretary Sir Michael Bonallack told SI’s John Garrity, “If he doesn’t win the British Open, there should be a steward’s inquiry.”
Woods would win that British, at St. Andrews, by eight strokes. Bowman was there to watch him again. Even now, he remembers the stat that defined the week: Tiger played 72 holes at the Old Course, which has 112 bunkers. He did not land in a single one.
Bjorn and Els were the unfortunate witnesses again. They tied for second. Bjorn said afterward, “Somebody out there is playing golf on a different planet.” It was the Summer of Tiger, the stretch when he went from phenom to superstar to transcendent.
Bowman remembers going into the scoring trailer behind Woods and Els after their final round at Pebble Beach. He described it like it happened last week.
“Tiger was on the left and Ernie was on the right,” Bowman says. “I was sitting beside Tiger. The lady [scoring with Bowman] was beside me. We’re not there for any official reason but they can ask us if they want to verify.”
Woods turned around and saw Bowman’s name on his credential. They had met the previous December in New York. Woods was so focused on his round that he didn’t realize Bowman had been walking with him all day.
“You have a good time?” Woods asked.
Bowman replied, “Not quite as great as you.”