Most players see Tiger Woods as the person to beat in the U.S. Open, but the challenging Pebble Beach course can claim the best.
PEBBLE BEACH, CA - The face of golf is not smiling at the moment.
The beauty and the mystery of the Pebble Beach Golf Links notwithstanding, he has decided this is no time for levity.
The 100th U.S. Open begins this morning, and the face of golf is expected to win it, perhaps even to dominate it.
So the face, at the moment, is unflinching, even as he offers an overwhelming understatement.
"I'm playing pretty good right now," Tiger Woods said. "I've hit a lot of good shots in practice sessions, played some pretty good rounds. It just kind of makes you believe you're heading in the right direction."
If Woods was any more on course this Open would be closed.
At no other tournament is the line between success and failure more fragile than at the U.S. Open.
An Open, by definition, is an endurance test, annually the most difficult tournament in the world. Opens aren't won as much as they are survived, their demanding course setups typically serving as equalizers.
That said, is there anyone anywhere who doesn't believe this is Woods' tournament to lose?
Woods will walk to the first tee today accompanied by an aura of unlimited possibility.
He is the best player in the world by a wide margin, the obvious favorite to win. He calls Pebble Beach one of his favorite courses. In four national pro-ams he has won once and finished second once.
Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton are producing huge years. Vijay Singh already has won the Masters. David Duval and Colin Montgomerie have games tailored to win Opens.
But the eyes of the field as well as the world will be collectively focused on Woods.
"We're all anxious as players, I'm sure, and the public would agree that we're all looking for one score all the time and it's Tiger's," Montgomerie said. "He's made a huge impact on us all."
Make no mistake, to a man, the rest of the field considers Woods the man to beat and rightly so.
The numbers he has generated, in this supposed age of greater depth, are staggering.
Woods, in 11 starts this year, has finished out of the top five only once. He has won four times, been runner-up three times.
In 26 starts across the past 13 months, he has won 14 times, a winning percentage that is at once absurd and understated.
The majors have become no different than the regular tour stops. Woods has finished out of the top 10 only twice the past nine majors.
"I always look for his name on the board," Sergio Garcia said. "You always want to see how far in front or how far behind you are from him. If he's doing well, you know that beating him will probably win the tournament or get close to it."
As he has almost from the start of his professional career, Woods will begin play today not so much against the rest of the field as against history, specifically as it pertains to Jack Nicklaus.
Can Woods, like Nicklaus, win the greatest tournament on the greatest course?
Everything about his game at the moment suggests he can.
He possesses the best long game, the best short game and perhaps the best mental game the sport has witnessed since Nicklaus.
He has mastered the nuances of course management and become a superb putter, too.
A U.S. Open is supposed to beat you up and wear you down, demanding tenacity more than touch.
And no one is more tenacious than Woods.
"I've always felt that I've been pretty tough mentally," Woods said. "I've always felt that I've always had a mental edge over a lot of my opponents. That doesn't mean I have the physical ability to back it up, but I always felt that I could play to win. I want to beat you."
Conventional wisdom has suggested that Woods will have more trouble winning an Open than any other major because the restricted fairways will negate his prodigious power, that the way to Tiger-proof a course is not to lengthen it but to tighten it.
But that may no longer be the case. He said he tailored his preparation to fit Pebble Beach's tight layout.
"When I'm at home, I'm trying to pick sides of the fairway to hit and shape it in there to a 10-yard wide area, that kind of thing," Woods said. "And I was able to do that. That lends you to believe if you can do it there, you can definitely do it in the tournament.
"I've never struggled with being motivated. I'm ready to go."