On Tuesday, a plaque will be unveiled adjacent to the 18th green on the South Course at Torrey Pines commemorating one of Tiger Woods’s most legendary moments.
In 2008, the last time the picturesque San Diego layout hosted the US Open, Woods, so obviously nursing a painful left leg injury, converted a 12-footer on the 72nd hole to force a play-off against countryman Rocco Mediate, which he duly won.
On the plaque are the words of the NBC commentator when the putt dropped: “Expect anything different?”
Alas, Woods will not be at the ceremony. The 45-year-old will remain at his Florida home, where he is still recovering from the catastrophic leg injuries he suffered in a car crash in February. Woods has declined an NBC invitation to feature on the telecast. As ever, he will allow his golf to do the talking.
Well, that and Dan Hicks. A veteran of six Olympics, Hicks is a household name in the US, known for his “calls” on each of Michael Phelps’s record eight golds at Beijing in 2008 as well as so many other sports, including American football and basketball. Yet from his home in Connecticut last week, he conceded that one of his commentaries stood out above all others.
“No doubt about it,” Hicks, 59, said. “I have people coming up all the time telling me where they were when Tiger holed that putt. That’s when you can tell how big a moment was. And if I’m on the golf course and I miss a putt, then one of my buddies, or even some other golfer nearby, always shouts, ‘Expect anything different?’ I’m honoured to be connected to one of the seminal moments of Tiger’s career. The whole week built to those few seconds on the final green and to the 18-hole play-off the next day. It was like a soap opera. You simply could not take your eyes off Tiger.”
There have been other sportscasters’ quotes on Woods that have passed into golfing folklore. Gary Koch’s “better than most” when Woods holed a 60-footer on the 17th at Sawgrass has earned icon status and so, too, has Verne Lundquist’s “Wow! In your life” when Woods chipped in on the 16th at the 2005 Masters. However, Hicks’ three words must take pride of place because they encapsulated the entire experience of watching Woods, and not just for that remarkable week either.
We knew we never should write him off, but it was always impossible not to believe that reality and the norms of a cruel game would one day catch up with him. And this was it. This was the instant when Woods would at last confirm himself as a human being. It was 5.52pm, West Coast time, and the aura of Woods was just about to go down with that California sun.
Nobody was aware of the intensity of Woods’s pain. His grimace had, indeed, become the enduring image of the 108th US Open as he grabbed his leg and doubled up when so many of his drives flew anywhere but on the fairway. Woods had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his knee nine weeks before and had not competed since. Yet he was adamant he was fine.
“I remember interviewing Tiger at the start of the week and I asked him, ‘How are you feeling? How are you really feeling?’” Hicks said. “Without hesitating, with that grin that we’ve seen a million times from Tiger, he replied, ‘Oh, I’m good, I’m good, bro’. The way he said it, I could tell that he was hiding something. I remember going back to our NBC trailer and saying, ‘You know what guys, I think there’s a little more going on here’. And when he started using this club as a crutch, that much became clear. But again, we had no idea of the extent of it until after the fact, and that’s why it was the best sporting occasion I’ve ever attended. The story just got better and better, even after it was supposedly over.”
In the aftermath, the world discovered that only two weeks earlier a consultant had studied X-rays of the two stress fractures Woods had suffered on his shin while practising too strenuously, too soon and begged him to spend four weeks on crutches.
“I’m playing,” the patient had said, but as he stood over that 12-footer, he accepted he was finished for the year. Yet what he could not accept was the notion of his last shot being a losing shot. As Woods’s putt set off, it began to bobble and bounce on the bumps, leaving the ground at least five times. It seemed to be veering right and 12 inches out was certain to stay above ground. But then Woods took a few steps to his left, the ball apparently followed suit and it ducked in on the high side.
As Tiger threw his head back and enacted his double fist-pump, Mediate, watching in the scorers’ hut, shook his head and smiled. “Unbelievable,” he said. “I knew he’d make it.” Hicks recalled: “Those Monday 18-hole play-offs could be anticlimactic, but 25,000 turned out and as Tiger said, ‘Rocco put up a hell of a fight’, before succumbing on the first extra hole. It was a phenomenal atmosphere. Everybody was still on a high from Sunday night. We didn’t see Woods for a while after that.”
Indeed, it was eight months until he reappeared, and the anticipation was huge of how quickly he would catch and pass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. But then the indestructible halo slipped when YE Yang overhauled his 54-hole lead at the 2009 US PGA Championship and then, a few months later, the halo was smashed to smithereens when the sex scandal emerged. Woods’s major drought lasted for 11 years until his resurrection at the 2019 Masters.
Now, the irony is that he genuinely is on one leg and could no more walk 91 yards than 91 holes. “I’m sure we will be showing that putt over and over now that we will back at the South Course – it will never get old,” Hicks said. “We will miss Tiger, for sure, but Phil Mickelson could complete the career grand slam, so there is plenty of opportunity for another great story. It’s fair to say, however, that Tiger has set that Torrey bar pretty high.”