Tiger Woods won't forget 81 in 2002

GULLANE, Scotland -- The putt dropped into the hole, and he raised his arms in triumph, bending over at the waist and sweeping his arms in a theatrical bow before smiling at his playing partner and exchanging high-fives.

At that moment, despite numerous frustrations throughout a brutal afternoon, Tiger Woods showed a self-deprecating sense of humor, having finally made a birdie on one of the most punishing days of his career. A few minutes later, he would par the 18th hole at Muirfield and then sign for a score of 81, the one and still only time in 17 years as a professional golfer that he has shot in the 80s.

That it came during the third round of the 2002 Open Championship, playing alongside his friend Mark O'Meara, made it all the more damaging, and while in pursuit of golf's Holy Grail, the Grand Slam, no less. All these years later, the howling wind, the sideways rain, the piercing cold -- and the 81 -- still sting.

"It was the hardest conditions I've ever played in,'' Woods said during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "We weren't prepared for that weather. I don't think anyone was.''

It was no consolation that Woods was among 10 players to shoot in the 80s that day during the 2002 Open at Muirfield, where the tournament returns for a 16th time this week. Or that only four scores in the 60s occurred before the weather rolled in off the Firth of Forth. Or that he rebounded with a 65 the following day after opening the tournament with rounds of 70 and 68.

No, a shot at the Grand Slam was blown away in the teeth of one nasty storm. Woods had become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year. Just like Nicklaus, Woods was heading to Muirfield, the East Lothian layout, where greats such as Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, the Golden Bear and Gary Player all had hoisted the Claret Jug.

But unlike Nicklaus, who made a spirited final-day charge in 1972 before falling by a single stroke to Trevino, Woods was done in by an outward 42 that included a double-bogey, four bogeys and no birdies.

As Woods said with a hint of resignation recently, "I was playing well. I won the first two majors that year. I was having a good year. Everything was looking like I could contend that week.''

Woods arrived in Scotland having not played a tournament since his U.S. Open victory at Bethpage. On the way though, he stopped in Ireland with O'Meara to get some links golf practice in. During his pre-tournament news conference, Woods, of course, was asked about his game and his preparation, but fielded as many questions about all-male club membership policies -- eight -- as he did questions directly related to the Grand Slam.

(About a week earlier, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson's famous "point of a bayonet'' line had been uttered in response to Martha Burk, sparking the debate that still hovers over Muirfield, which remains an all-male club.)

The first two days of the championship were relatively mild by Scottish summer standards. While not overly warm, the temperatures were comfortable. Woods, then 26, was grouped for the first two rounds with England's Justin Rose and Japan's Shigeki Maruyama.

Although Woods felt he left numerous shots on the course in an opening-round 1-under-par 70, his second-round 68 put him squarely in contention (even though he took 63 putts over the first 36 holes). He trailed leader Ernie Els by 2 shots, would be grouped with his buddy O'Meara during the third round and seemed poised to put himself right there for a run at a third straight major.

His Saturday tee time would be 2:30 p.m local time.

Meanwhile, 83 players made the 36-hole cut at 2 over par, meaning the entire field was within 8 strokes of the lead. Among those to make it on the number was Australian Steve Elkington, the 1995 PGA Championship winner.

Elkington shot scores of 71-73 during the first two rounds, meaning an early tee time on Saturday. He had returned to the Auld Hoose, a pub just around the corner from where he was renting a place in the nearby town of North Berwick.

"It sits just above the port there, and the harbor is so old that they have stone gates to let boats in and out,'' Elkington recalled. "After the Friday round, I go into the Auld Hoose and there's an old guy who has a silver jug that they just leave for him. They call him the harbor master, and he has this big, long beard.

"So I'm in there on the Friday night and he pulls me off to the side. 'Listen to me. The weather is going to be s--- at about 3 p.m. tomorrow.' He could tell from the current. 'I'm telling you, it is going to be s---.' ''

Elkington got out early and shot a 3-under-par 68, one of just four players to score in the 60s all day.

"I come back to the Auld Hoose and I went in the back to have a sleep in one of the rooms,'' Elkington said. "When I came back out, two hours later, I looked out the front door, and there was a guy crawling along hands and knees trying to get in the pub, the weather was so bad. Now I'm watching the scoreboard and I'm going from 40th to 30th and then into the top 10. It was a great break.''

The weather, simply, was causing havoc. The old man was a bit off in his prediction, but not by much. The storm hit just after 2 p.m., and after a few squalls, rain and howling wind arrived at 2:30 p.m. -- just as Woods and O'Meara were teeing off.

"It hit when we were on the putting green getting ready to go,'' Woods said. "By the time we got on the first hole ... the temperature dropped, rain was coming sideways, blowing. And gusts were over 40 [mph]. The fourth hole, a par-3, normally we were hitting 7-irons. I hit a 2-iron, and it probably should have been a 3-wood. O'Meara hit a 3-wood. And then the next hole was a 2-iron, 2-iron par-5 and I hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron. And it was so cold.''

Woods and O'Meara were in the seventh group from the end, and nobody among those final 14 players shot better than 72. Colin Montgomerie, who had shot a course-record 64 the previous day, matched Lee Janzen with the high round of 84. Monty had gone 74-64-84.

Padraig Harrington, who was in a five-way tie for the lead through 36 holes, could do no better than 76. He ended up missing a playoff the following day by a stroke.

"It was the worst weather I've ever played golf in,'' the Irishman said recently. "I have played in conditions that were unplayable that weren't as bad as that day … and it wasn't unplayable [at Muirfield] ... The balls weren't rolling off the greens. What was happening is there were very strong winds. There was rain that wasn't flooding the greens. And there was seriously cold temperature.

"Now the seriously cold temperature meant the wind was accentuating the effect of what it was doing to the golf ball, and the wet meant the ball wasn't rolling off the green. So you had two factors there were making the wind seem extreme -- cold and wet -- yet the wet was stopping the ball from rolling off.

"It was the cold temperature, the fact we weren't prepared and wet thrown in on top of us. It was horrendous.''

Woods' first tee shot landed in the rough, and the worst day of his pro career had commenced. He made a bogey at the fourth when he couldn't reach the par-3 green. He made double-bogey on the par-5 fifth when he his second shot went into the rough, and his fourth flew over the green. He needed 42 strokes for the outward nine.

There was a poor chip at the 12th, he left a ball in a bunker at the 13th, and had another bogey at the 14th before playing the final four holes in 1 under par, the damage already done.

The two doubles, seven bogeys and a birdie added up to 81, 10 over par.

Els, who had suffered his share of torment at Woods' expense, bogeyed four of his first six holes but managed to hang on. He teed off an hour after Woods, and that difference meant some reasonably calmer conditions over the closing holes. Els called the day "the most amazing I've seen in an Open Championship. You can't believe how bad the conditions were.''

He managed a remarkable 1-over-par 72, making pars on holes 7 through 10 and then four birdies coming in to take a 2-stroke lead over Denmark's Soren Hansen.

The average score of the final 14 players was 76.7, and of the nine players who broke par, none teed off later than 10:20 a.m.

Woods was 11 strokes back, in a tie for 67th.

Outside the Muirfield clubhouse, with a light rain falling early on that Saturday evening, Woods stood in a tent and patiently answered questions, handling the situation about as graciously as could be expected under the circumstances.

"It was just blowing so hard out there,'' he said afterward. "It was tough to stand up straight at times. I'm disappointed and frustrated, but I tried all the way around.''

Eleven years later, Woods remembers it well.

"We knew there was supposed to be a little bit of rain and wind was supposed to pick up,'' he said. "But no one was calling for the temperature dropping into the 30s. No one was prepared for that. I remember watching the highlights afterward and seeing Shigeki on No. 6, he was huddled behind the [marketing] boards on the tee box. Freezing. It was cold.''

The following day, Woods matched the tournament's best round, a 6-under-par 65 that moved him into a tie for 29th. He ended up missing the playoff by 6 strokes, meaning had he shot a 75 a day earlier, the Sunday score would have been good enough for a playoff.

Elkington's Saturday 68 moved into him a share of 10th place, just 4 shots back of Els. He shot a final-round 66, but missed a short birdie putt on the final hole that would have won the tournament outright. He joined fellow Aussie Stuart Appleby, Frenchman Thomas Levet and Els – who nearly let the tournament get away down the stretch -- in a four-hole aggregate playoff. It took a fifth hole before Els finally defeated Levet, winning his third major championship.

By then, Woods was long gone, flying back home to Florida, perhaps wondering about the opportunity that had gotten away in such a maddening storm. Although the conditions were terrible, only three players shot worse than him. As good as he was at the time, Woods shot nearly 5 strokes higher than the average for those who played in the last seven groups. For once, he seemed unable to adjust to the situation, to accept that a good score might be in the mid-70s.

All these years later, however, Woods says he does not look back with regret.

"Not at all,'' he said. "There were no good scores in my little section [during the third round]. The guys who were behind us got a little bit of a break, they played six or seven holes and it wasn't as bad. That helped. We played most of the day in that stuff. And the guys who went out before the storm got a chance to post, and we all came back to them.''

A month later, Woods finished second by a shot to Rich Beem at the PGA Championship, giving him two victories and a runner-up finish in the 2002 majors. After the PGA, he would part ways with instructor Butch Harmon and would not win another major until the 2005 Masters, the first of six through the 2008 U.S. Open.

Of course, 20 majors have passed since, and Woods has been stuck on 14 for five years. Is Muirfield where he breaks through? Woods has never been one to say a place owes him anything, but you wonder if that isn't in the back of his mind, somewhere.