Twenty years ago, Tiger Woods stood on the tee box at the iconic par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. It was a Saturday, the third round of THE PLAYERS Championship in 2001, and Tiger was chasing the leaders. Some 137 yards away – specifically at the back top shelf of the island green – stood Fred Funk, putter in hand. He had a long, speedy, multiple-breaking putt. Tiger fixated his gaze on the putt, curious to see the line and the result.
It was not good. Funk’s putt quickly gathered speed, ran past the hole and ran off the green. He eventually four-putted, making double bogey despite staying dry. Tiger took note.
Don’t hit it where Funk did. Don’t leave yourself with an impossible putt.
One swing later and, of course, Woods found himself in nearly the same spot at the 17th green that Funk had just vacated. “Crap iron shot” is how Tiger described it many years later. That’s probably being kind.
NBC, the tournament’s long-time broadcast partner, went to commercial. Commentator Gary Koch, in the TV tower behind the 16th green, used the break to give producer Tommy Roy a head’s up. Not only had Funk just suffered a disastrous fate from that spot but so did a handful of other players that day.
“Every single one of them had putted the ball off the green,” Koch recalled. “It comes down that slope; they don’t read enough break. It breaks to the right and the ball ends up in the fringe.”
Roy and Koch discussed the situation that Tiger now faced. Back from the commercial, Koch set up the scenario as Tiger reached his ball and began visualizing the 60-foot putt and taking a few practice strokes.
Finally, Tiger made contact with his ball. NBC analyst Johnny Miller then asked Koch an on-air question. “How’s that look?”
Koch noticed that Tiger’s line and speed were different than the previous putts from that spot. He quickly answered Miller.
“Better than most.”
Twenty years later, Koch’s response remains the most famous line ever uttered in the 47-year history of THE PLAYERS Championship. And it describes the single most important shot of the 5,054 that Woods has struck in his 19 professional starts at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
That it happened at the PGA Tour’s most famous hole adds to the legend.
The highlight – with Koch’s description and Tiger pumping his fist to a euphoric gallery after the ball rolled into the hole – is revisited every year. It’s an indelible part of THE PLAYERS, a magical moment on a magical hole during a magical stretch of golf by the best player of his generation. And it fueled the first of Woods’ two career victories at THE PLAYERS.
“I don’t think anybody doesn’t know it now,” said World Golf Hall of Famer Retief Goosen, in the field that week. “I think everybody knows. … That line is going to always be associated with Tiger.”
Of course, to coax that line out of Koch, Tiger had to deliver the shot. Thanks to getting “a little teach” from Funk’s initial putt, Woods realized he needed to make a slight adjustment.
“I knew how quick it was, so I gave it a little bit more,” Woods explained. “It broke left a lot at the top with the old green. It broke left a lot at the top and then it just snapped at the right.
“Yeah, I hit my spot and I was just hoping that it would take the break because I saw Fred’s, how much it went to the right at the end, and my putt was not going right. I’m like, would you start breaking? And as soon as it started to break, I’m like, stop breaking. And then it caught the low side of the hole and went in.”
Koch’s call of the shot brought chills to the television audience because of his repetition of the “better than most” line. The first time he uttered it, Woods’ ball has just left the top shelf and was veering left. The second time he said it, the ball had now swung back toward the right. The third time came as the ball found the bottom of the cup. Each time, his voice rose as the dramatic moment played out.
“As it got going down the hill, it was clear to me the ball was far enough to the left, way more so than any other ball had been all day long,” Koch said. “That was when the next ‘better than most’ came out. And then, of course, it went in the hole. ‘Better than most.’
“The great thing to me, if you go back and watch that, no one said a word for probably close to 45 seconds,” he continued. “It was all Tiger’s reaction. And back then, at THE PLAYERS … there weren’t all the corporate hospitality areas at 17. That hillside was absolutely packed with people and they erupted. … When people ask about it, it was a classic Tiger moment.”
Bernhard Langer was inside the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, having lunch and watching the moment on TV. He still remembers hearing the roars. And he—along with the other players in the field that week—remain impressed by the result two decades later.
“You could put Tiger Woods there 20 times, make that same putt and probably not come close to making another one,” said Langer, who finished solo third that week. “That’s special, that much break and the speed. I mean, most guys would be just thrilled to get within 4 feet. He made it.”
“It started off and goes right, then it went left, and then it went right severely at the end,” added another competitor, Colin Montgomerie. “It was just about to miss but it just hung on. If it had missed, of course, I’m not saying off the green at the front but it was in the fringe because there’s nothing to stop it apart from the hole. But that’s Tiger. That was him, 20 years ago.”
“Everybody missed it down the right bottom,” recalled Ernie Els. “Tiger being Tiger, he gets it right most of the time. He showed us up yet again.”
Unlike most of his career-defining shots that came in the final round, Woods was not wearing a red shirt. Remember, this was the third round on Saturday, so Woods wore a white shirt with thin vertical black stripes. The birdie putt only moved him closer to tournament leader Jerry Kelly. Tiger eventually shot 66 that day, leaving him two strokes behind Kelly going into the final round. He followed with a closing 67 to beat Vijay Singh by one stroke in a Monday finish due to poor weather.
“It wasn’t for the win of the tournament necessarily,” Woods said when asked where the putt ranked among his greatest. “I think I was still behind Jerry Kelly at the time, and so it was on a Saturday afternoon, but it definitely gave me some momentum. As far as some of my greatest putts, it will be up there on the lag putts.”
Of course, Tiger didn’t hear Koch’s description live. Neither did Kelly, who was back on the 16th hole. He had seen where Tiger’s tee shot had landed and wondered if Woods might drop a stroke with a three-putt. A few minutes later, he heard the roars. Instead of a shot lost, it was a shot gained.
He continues to hear the roars every time the highlight is shown.
“Seen that way too many times,” Kelly said with a smile. “I need a better than most.”
Don’t we all. Asked if this was the best call he’s made in 40 years as a broadcaster, Koch replied: “Absolutely, no question about it. I’ve had some others that I think have been pretty good, but they’re nowhere near that.”
Indeed, it goes down as being one of the greatest calls in golf, a moment when Tiger pulled off the impossible.
“I remember Verne Lundquist when Jack [Nicklaus] made that putt [in the 1986 Masters]. And obviously Jim Nantz, the bear coming out of hibernation,” Els said. “There’s been great quotes, but Gary’s is one of the all-time classics.”
See the better than most moment below