As Tiger Woods walked toward the famed island green on No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass, Gary Koch slid to the edge of his seat. In his booth across the water from Woods, the NBC Sports broadcaster prepared to set the scene.
It was Saturday at the 2001 Players Championship. Tiger Woods was nine under par and charging. He was three strokes back of Jerry Kelly for the lead, but that hardly mattered. Deficits rarely affected Woods in 2001; he was a month away from winning his fourth consecutive major championship and claiming the “Tiger Slam.”
In a few seconds, the network would return live to Woods on the 17th green. Every square foot of the stadium area was packed with fans, thousands of whom who began staking real estate on Sawgrass’ spectator mounds hours earlier.
Minutes before, Woods’ approach on the 17th had sailed past the middle-left pin and over the spine bisecting the green. His ball came to rest some 60 feet from the flagstick, nestled safely against the back fringe. In theory, Woods was putting for birdie, but in reality, he’d be lucky to save par.
“I had been sitting there most of the day watching the play on 17 and had seen several other players putt from similar positions up on that upper shelf down to the lower level where the hole was kept that day,” Koch told GOLF.com. “None had any success whatsoever. Several had actually putted the ball right off the green into the fringe.”
As NBC went to break, Koch pinged his producer, Tommy Roy.
“Tommy, where Tiger’s ball is, I’ve seen other players play from there and they’ve really struggled,” Koch told Roy. “No one has gotten the ball anywhere near the hole.”
“Great,” Roy responded as he counted the broadcast team back in from commercial. “Let’s set it up.”
The screen faded into an overhead picture of the 17th green.
“Now we’re back at the 17th and what a scene it is, the gallery surrounding, they are certainly enthusiastic, I’ll say that,” Koch said. “Johnny, I’ve seen a number of players putt from the back part of this green, and the results have not been good.”
“It seems like when Tiger gets really engaged in something difficult, he usually does something extra good,” Miller quipped. “Well, he should be pretty engaged here.”
Behind the ball, Woods lowered into a crouch, his back leg tucked onto the wooden paneling protecting the island green. In the tower, Koch and Miller were silent.
The suspense was palpable, aided by Koch and Miller. After what felt like an eternity, Woods hit his putt.
“Having worked with Johnny Miller for 20-plus years, you never knew what Johnny was going to say,” Koch said. “Out of nowhere came ‘Gary, how’s that look?'”
Tiger’s ball bounded over the spine of the green and toward the hole.
“Johnny, that’s better than most,” Koch famously replied.
“How about in?” Miller responded.
“Better than most,” Koch chimed again as the ball fell in the hole. “Better than most!“
To date, Koch and Miller’s call of Woods’ miraculous birdie remains one of the most memorable moments in Players Championship history. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Koch marvels at how routine it seems.
“It’s hard to imagine it’s been 20 years,” Koch said. “That was just another Tiger moment. It’s just not a fair fight. Those were those were the kind of things that Tiger did back then. So I mean, did I expect him to make that putt? No. But did it surprise me when he did? Not really.”
Ironically, he insists he deserves none of the credit for the moment’s historical significance. Rather, that honor is owed to Johnny Miller.
“Why did Johnny ask me the additional question? I have no idea,” he said. “I mean, if he doesn’t ask that question of me initially, I can’t imagine that the call would have been anywhere near the same level of excitement.”
Some two decades later, he still has a difficult time conjuring the words to properly describe the moment.
“I can honestly say I was standing up in my tower and the hair on my arms was standing up,” he said. “There was that much electricity and, and just energy from the crowd as the putt went in. It was probably as loud as any single moment on a golf course that I have ever heard up to that point in time. Since then, there have been a couple that would rival it, and all would involve Tiger.”
Gary Koch — a 68-year-old former pro with top-20 finishes in each of the major championships — never pictured his closest connection to a moment in golf history coming via his television career. But then again, he never pictured witnessing a golfer as talented as Tiger Woods.
“Let’s put it this way: I could probably stand there all day (and not make that putt),” he said with a laugh.