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People begin claiming their spots around the famed 17th green at 9 a.m. in the hopes that they will soon experience one of the magical moments in the storied history of THE PLAYERS Championship. Unbeknownst to them, Tiger Woods is only hours away from delivering a moment that is “better than most.”
Rain earlier in the week has softened the course. Sea breezes have averaged 10-15 mph all week. Temperatures reached the mid 70s during the first two days of the tournament and the same weather is expected Saturday. A total of 75 players were cut from the tournament when Friday’s round came to an end just before another gorgeous Northeast Florida sunset.
Woods is 3-under par coming off rounds of 72 and 69 to start the weekend at THE PLAYERS in 2001. He trails leader Jerry Kelly by 6 shots. Woods gets his third round off to a rocky start with a bogey on the first hole. He bounces right back though, rattling off three straight birdies and then making par on the remaining five holes on the front nine. Woods starts the back nine with a par on the 10th hole. Then, an eagle on the par-5 11th hole, followed by birdies on the 12th and 16th holes, set the stage for one of the greatest moments in THE PLAYERS history.
Woods makes the nerve-wracking walk from the 16th green to the 17th tee, and the thousands of people that fill the stadium around the island green are buzzing with anticipation. Woods has positioned himself at 9-under par, 3 shots behind leader Jerry Kelly. The spectators that had staked their place in the stadium before the sun had even shined on the course’s softly-undulated sloping mounds are unknowingly about to experience a moment that is undoubtedly still shared amongst friends and family.
Woods’ tee shot on the 17th hole lands on the back left side of the island green, well past the front left pin position, and continues rolling to the back left corner of the green. His ball comes to a final rest just onto the fringe cut of grass, less than 2 feet from the bulkhead and what would have been a watery grave.
As fans reach over the ropes with an extended arm hoping to give Woods a high five as he walks to the island green, the atmosphere inside the stadium intensifies each time Woods’ foot hits the ground. Woods is dialed in. He has a 60-foot putt ahead of him, but to the world's No. 1 golfer, it's just another putt that he is determined to make.
As Woods walks up the finely-manicured narrow path, the only thing keeping the island green from truly being unreachable by foot, the spectators begin to quiet down. A hushed buzz engulfs the air inside The Stadium. The crowd is quietly electric as they watch Woods walk onto the island green.
Woods walks to his ball at the back edge and takes a quick glance at his putt. He walks through the heart of the green to the very front edge and surveys his line the entire time -- almost as if he’s drawing an imaginary line on the green of exactly how he thinks the putt will break.
The sun is reflecting off Woods’ white Nike polo shirt adorned with black vertical stripes as he crouches on the front edge of the green. Woods stares back past the hole to where his Nike golf ball sits peacefully awaiting the cold metal face of Woods’ custom-made Scotty Cameron putter. As Woods rises and begins walking back toward his ball, eyeing his line the entire way, he spots a ball mark and reaches into his right pocket for a tool to repair the imperfection in the putting surface. Woods uproots the ground with the divot tool near the ball mark before tapping the ground several times with the bottom of his putter to flatten the green. With the imperfection now dissolved into the finely cut green, and the crowd falling steadily more quiet with each second that passes, Woods places his divot tool back into his pocket and refocuses on the task at hand.
Woods is standing on the brow of the green’s ridge surveying the last 20 feet of his 60-foot putt as he traces an imaginary line through the air with the butt end of his putter. A light applause is heard from across the lake as another player taps in a putt on the 16th green. Woods continues walking back to his ball before stopping one last time near the extreme left of the green. He makes sure to take a look at his line from every possible angle as he finishes a full circle around the island green that takes all of two minutes.
Woods now positions himself in what little room he has behind his ball and crouches down. With one foot on the wooden bulkhead and his white golf glove slightly protruding from his black slacks as it dangles over the edge of the water, he takes one last look at his line from a lowered view. The sound of cars driving by on nearby State Road A1A is heard ever so softly in the distance.
Woods rises. The crowd falls deadly silent. The tension is palpable.
The only noise being made as Woods takes a few one-handed practice strokes is that of a commercial jet-liner flying high above the course. Woods’ caddie Steve Williams stands at the front side of the green tending the flag -- his feet together, standing as still as a statue.
Woods continues taking practice strokes. He adds his left hand to the putter and inches forward. He takes two final practice strokes and addresses the ball. The silence is almost unbearable as Woods hovers over his ball and takes one final look toward the hole. He resets his feet ever so slightly and slowly begins to take back his putter -- the entire crowd holding its breath to not disturb the silence.
The exact moment Woods’ putter touches the ball, fans begin shouting, “get in the hole!” as if they were the first horse set free from the the blocks at the Kentucky Derby. The sound of the once-loud jet-liner over the silent crowd is immediately drowned out by an intensifying murmur of excitement from spectators. Woods’ ball rolls smoothly across the green toward the hole.
The ball begins to break slightly to the left on the top tier of the green. Woods straightens his back from his hunched over stance. The ball reaches the ridge in the middle of the green. NBC Sports analyst Gary Koch begins his now famous play-by-play call:
“Johnny that is … better than most …”
The ball hits the slope about 20 feet from the hole. It begins to break hard right. It quickly picks up speed -- the crowd continues to grow louder with excitement.
“ ... better than most ... “
The ball is 5 feet from the hole as Woods raises his putter into the air knowing what’s about to happen.
“... better than most!”
The eruption of sound as the ball lips into the right side of the hole is fierce. Fans are jumping and clapping and strangers high five each other as Woods turns to the spectators on the bank behind the island green and performs one of his signature fist pumps. Fans that gathered around the stadium at in the early morning hours were rewarded with a crescendo of historic proportions.
If the ball doesn’t fall into the hole, it runs at least 3-4 feet past, and Woods is left with a challenging putt for his par.
Other players faced with similar putts to Woods’ throughout the tournament all missed it long and right of the hole. Koch says the players missed the putts because they underestimated the break once the ball hits the slope.
“I think it’s safe to say you could hit that putt 50 times and maybe make it once,” Koch said.
Woods would eventually win THE PLAYERS two days later after rain delayed the final round until Monday. Woods was able to hold off Jerry Kelly for his first of two career wins at THE PLAYERS.
The margin of victory … one stroke.
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