(Editor’s note: All this week, in honor of the 20-year anniversary of Tiger Woods’ “Better than Most” putt, we’ll be looking back at the magical moment at TPC Sawgrass, perhaps the greatest in the history of The Players Championship. Coming Tuesday: Tiger Woods does the unthinkable, and Gary Koch’s call perfectly captures the moment.)

Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay likened the moment to being in the ocean, seconds from a large wave that will knock you off balance.

“You know it’s coming and you sort of duck your head,” the veteran PGA Tour caddie said.

Players Championship volunteer Mary Sullivan remembers the sounds: utter silence, a buzz of uncertainty, perhaps even disbelief, then a deafening roar.

“Boom!” she said. “Everything went crazy.”

PGA Tour player Fred Funk was more than 300 yards away, standing in the 18th fairway of the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course when he heard the noise.

“What the hell just happened?” he asked caddie Paul Jungman.

What, indeed.

The answer: Tiger Woods happened. He had just hit the putt that has taken on a life and even a name of its own: the “Better than Most putt,” 20 years ago this month on March 24, 2001, during the third round of The Players.

“Better than most,” is the phrase NBC 17th-hole tower announcer Gary Koch uttered three times — twice when Woods’ 60-foot, triple-breaking, downhill putt at the par-3 17th hole was on its way and one more after it caught the right edge of the hole and dropped in, to the amazement, delight and unabashed joy of the thousands of fans ringing the Island Green.

“We’ve seen aces, Fred Couples hitting his third shot in the hole after he went in the water, Craig Perks, Rickie Fowler, guys winning the tournament and guys getting their dreams crushed,” said NBC golf anchor Dan Hicks. “But there has been nothing, as far as being a sheer, scintillating moment, like that putt.”

No one celebrates a moment and then is more reserved about it after the fact that Woods, who went on to win the first of his two Players Championships two days later in a Monday finish. When the putt dropped, Woods gave a few characteristic fist pumps, screamed, “Yeah! Woo! Yeah!” and couldn’t stop smiling until he got to the 18th tee.

Years later, Woods merely says, “I’m just glad I made it … it was humming.”

The putt also is a bit of an oddity because it’s one of the most memorable golf shots in history — on a Saturday. Almost every shot that has earned its creator immortality for that moment was during a final round: Gene Sarazen’s 4-wood for an albatross at No. 15 in the 1935 Masters, Jack Nicklaus’ 1-iron approach and Tom Watson’s chip-in at Pebble Beach’s 17th hole in U.S. Opens a decade apart, Seve Ballesteros hitting from a parking lot at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in the 1979 Open Championship, Nicklaus’ putt at No. 17 in the 1986 Masters, Larry Mize’s sudden death hole-out at No. 11 a year later at Augusta, and yes, Woods’ dramatic chip at No. 16 in the 2005 Masters all came on Sunday.

And on a hole at The Players that has produced so much final-round drama, it’s Woods’ Saturday putt in 2001 that is the most-replayed and seems etched deeper in tournament lore than any other shot, long, short or in between.

“It all has to do with who hit the shot,” Koch said.

Tiger Woods swings his club during the Players Championship at The Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Harry How/Allsport)

Climbing into contention

Prior to 2001, Woods had made four starts in The Players Championship and was making progress in deciphering Pete Dye’s devilish design.

As a rookie in 1997, Woods tied for 31st at 1-over 289. The following season, he tied for 35th, with a 2-over 290. In 1999 he shot his highest 72-hole score in three Player starts, 3-over 291, but the course was so hard and so windy that week that he tied for 10th and was six shots behind winner David Duval.

Through two rounds in 2000, Woods had yet to sign for a score in the 60s at the Stadium Course and had broken par only five times. But a 66 in the third round in 2000 set up a final-round showdown with Hal Sutton and on a Monday finish, Sutton survived by one shot, despite Woods making eagle at No. 16.

In the meantime, Woods had won five majors and 25 victories in all. He came into the 2001 Players having won at Bay Hill and three weeks after The Players he would win the Masters to complete the “Tiger Slam” — holding all four major titles at the same time.

He was at the peak of his talents … but The Players, at a course that negated his power off the tee, continued to elude him.

“It would be nice to win,” he said before the tournament. “Obviously, it’s the best field we play … to be able to win on this golf course, that is extremely demanding, I think any player is going to take some satisfaction out of that.”

But Woods began the week in 2001 with a typical Stadium Course round for him, at that point in his career, with an even-par 72. It was his 13th score of either 71, 72 or 73 in 17 competitive Players rounds.

Woods was asked after finishing if he had a score in mind that he needed to shoot for the rest of the tournament to have a chance.

“If I can go out there and birdie every hole for the next 54 holes, I think I’m looking all right.”

He settled for a 3-under 69 in the second round, his first sub-70 score as a pro at the Stadium Course. But he hit an 8-iron into the water at No. 17 and after some prodding during his post-round news conference, unloaded a bit on the hole.

Tiger Woods went on to win the 2001 Players Championship on a Monday finish.

“I think it is wonderful for the fans to watch, but I think any player who plays out here who actually understands the game, I don’t think they are really going to say they like it,” Woods said. “It is out on an island where you are playing a short shot, but still, you’ve got to have some room to miss it. And with the pin locations like today, it’s to the slope on the right, and that’s not a whole lot of room to work with. Because of that, I think that a lot of guys are not going to say it is a great hole.”

Woods was 3-under, tied for eighth and six shots behind leader Jerry Kelly.

Tiger Woods: Making his move

Mary Sullivan first saw Tiger Woods play golf in the 1994 U.S. Amateur at the Stadium Course. She was among a group of Players’ volunteers who were asked to work at the U.S. Amateur and she walked all 36 holes with Woods in the championship match against Trip Kuehne.

“Gosh, he was so skinny back then,” said Sullivan a St. Johns County school teacher, who has been volunteering at The Players for more than 40 years. “They didn’t rope anything off back then. It was just me and a few other people they asked to walk behind them for 36 holes. It was fun because most of the guys in the tournament were college kids and they looked excited to be there.”

Sullivan remembers Woods making his comeback from six holes down, and finally taking the lead when he nearly hit his tee shot at No. 17 into the water, then made a birdie putt from off the fringe.

“My Goodness, he was something special,” she said.

Three years later, Woods was in his first Players. Sullivan was on the player escort committee and was asked to be one of the walking escorts with Woods.

Only this time, she had more company. Woods was the hottest rookie in the game’s history and was just weeks away from winning his first major at the Masters.

“They had some vice-chairmen [from the Players volunteer staff] and some other muscle men walking him around,” Sullivan said.

But a chord was struck between the young international star and the teacher.

She noticed the little things, such as Woods’ politeness around the game’s older stars and to volunteers. She loved his enthusiasm for the game, the simple joys of being on the putting green or being in the heat of a tournament.

“One time, he saw Byron Nelson in the parking lot,” Sullivan said. “Byron was walking to someone else and Tiger took his hat off and stood to one side, waiting for them to finish their conversation before he shook his hand and asked how he was doing. I told Tiger later how proud I was of him and the way he dealt with people. I guess it’s the schoolteacher in me.”

Sullivan began serving as a walking escort with Woods at every Players. Every time she met him in the parking lot, she got what she calls, “my Momma hug,” from Woods. She also baked him chocolate chip cookies (until after 9/11, when the Tour banned players receiving gifts of food from fans), which Woods devoured.

The third round in 2001 was no different. Sullivan and the other walking escorts waited for Woods in the parking lot, went with him to the practice area, and then to the first tee, where Woods teed off with Phil Mickelson.

“He was very relaxed that day,” Sullivan said.

Woods played like it. After an opening bogey at No. 1, he made his move, with birdies at Nos. 2, 3 and 4.

After six pars in a row, Woods stepped on the gas with a short eagle putt at No. 11, after spanking a 4-iron 229 yards over water, then a birdie at the 12th.

Three more safe pars and then Woods got up-and-down for birdie at No. 16 and was three shots behind Kelly.

He then nearly outguessed himself at the 17th tee. Facing the usual Saturday front-right pin, Woods said it was a perfect wedge number, but if he drew it slightly, the ball might spin back into the water.

Instead, he hit a three-quarter, cut 9-iron, hoping to hit it into the slope of the green. But the wind changed as Woods made his swing.

“The ball just got up and flatlined on me,” he said. “It was just gone.”

By “gone,” Woods meant on the back shelf of the green, a few inches onto the collar. The Tour’s ShotLink technology which measures the distance of putts was still two years away, so the historically accepted distance of the putt has been 60 feet.

In terms of where the hole was and where Woods’ ball was, it was difficult to have a birdie putt attempt that would be any longer.

CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND - JULY 20: NBC commenators Johnny Miller and Dan Hicks appear on set during the second round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Club on July 20, 2018 in Carnoustie, Scotland. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

NBC commentators Johnny Miller and Dan Hicks appear on set during the second round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Club on July 20, 2018, in Carnoustie, Scotland. Both were on the broadcast the day Woods sunk his “Better than Most” putt. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

NBC plots a quick strategy

NBC went to commercial and quickly, Koch told producer Tommy Roy, Hicks and analyst Johnny Miller what he had seen of every player whose tee shot landed on the top shelf of the green, or behind the hole: the putt was a double- and even a triple-breaker, depending on how far left it was and would be motoring when it hit the downslope.

In the group before, Funk had a putt of about 15 feet, but down the path Woods’ ball would have to take to the hole once it hit the slope, and four-putted for double-bogey.

“I told Tommy on the ‘talk-back’ that everyone had putted this almost off the green,” Koch said. “He said, ‘great … let’s set the scene up when we came out of the commercial.”

Hicks said Roy and assistant producer Tommy Randolph were the best he’s ever worked with on plotting strategy for the next shot during a commercial break.

“We were blessed to have a couple of moments to think about what we were seeing,” Hicks said. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had with producers have come in the seconds before you come back and the guys did an incredible job setting it up.”

Left unsaid was the improbability of Woods making the putt.

“I know it’s Tiger, it’s 2001 and he’s at the height of his powers,” Hicks said. “But I’m not thinking at that point he’s going to make it.”

Fred Funk, shown here reacting after missing a putt at the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, four-putted the green on No. 16 at the 2001 Players Championship. Tiger Woods was watching. Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports.

Very few people knew, however, that between Woods’ chip and putt at No. 16, he watched Funk hit each one of his four putts. While Woods would tell Koch later that he never practiced a putt from that spot on the green to the Saturday hole placement, he had already seen how Funk’s putt reacted.

“Glad I could help,” Funk said. “That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my golf career.”

While Woods was stalking his putt and caddie Steve Williams was getting ready to tend the pin, Mackay was helping Mickelson read a 20-foot birdie putt that was at the top of the slope, to the left of Woods’ ball.

“I’ve seen Tiger do some amazing things,” Mackay said. “We all have. But it looked so out of left field that he could make that putt.”

Koch, Hicks and Miller also helped set the scene from a crowd standpoint — there was little green space to be seen on the banks surrounding the hole, and Koch noted that when he came there around 9 a.m. to look at the pin positions, people were already jockeying for prime viewing spots.

Hicks took note of a phenomenon unique to The Players championship: often, the biggest crowds of the week are on Fridays and Saturdays.

“The crowd and the atmosphere were off the charts,” Hicks said.

Woods addressed the ball and Koch immediately saw that Woods had picked up on what every player near that spot had missed that day.

“He was aiming right, but at a point where the ball would go further to the left than anyone else had,” said Koch, a six-time PGA Tour winner from the University of Florida who has been working on NBC’s golf coverage since 1996.

What also wasn’t happening was Koch rehearsing what he would say about the putt, one way or another.

“I try to be as spontaneous as possible,” he said. “Some guys might try to script stuff but to me, the most natural is whatever comes out when it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t sound all that great, but it comes from the heart.”

COMING TUESDAY: Tiger Woods does the unthinkable, and Gary Koch’s call perfectly captures the moment. Also this week: Adam Scott, who was there and said Tiger would make the putt; Butch Harmon as the witness to Scott’s call and what Tiger said to Butch afterward; Mickelson’s thoughts 20 years later and more.

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