Tiger Woods returns to the scene of his greatest performance for this week's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, no longer necessarily the man to beat but a definite threat to win his 16th major title.
Woods' form at the recent Memorial tournament, where he tied for ninth, combined with his love for and knowledge of Pebble Beach suggest he will not be far away come Sunday on the fabled California coast.
When he won by a record 15 strokes in 2000, Woods could smash his drives further than pretty much everyone else, though that played only a minor role in his emphatic runaway success, so otherworldly was he in every facet of the game.
But distance off the tee should not matter at Pebble Beach, a short course by modern standards where accuracy off the tee will be more important than length.
Woods is arguably the greatest iron player ever, an asset that will be so important at Pebble Beach, where the tiny, sharply-sloping greens require precise approach shots.
Even though his iron play was not of the highest order at the Memorial, a week off to hone it should make all the difference.
"Each day I got a little more crisp," Woods said after the Memorial as he turned his attention towards Pebble Beach.
"I knew going into (the final round) I was never going to win the tournament, but I was hoping I could get something positive going into the Open, and I was able to accomplish that, which is great.
"I hit a couple of loose iron shots, and my fairway bunker game wasn't very good. Those are loose things that you can't afford to have happen in an Open. If I can clean those up, I should be all right."
After he won the Masters in April, ending a decade-long major victory drought, talk immediately turned to whether the 43-year-old could add to his major tally this year.
Last month's PGA Championship was always going to be the least likely of the other majors to suit him, due to the length of the course, some 400 yards longer than Pebble, and damp to boot after heavy rain.
Added to that, Woods was not fully prepared either physically or emotionally, having not played a tournament between Augusta and Bethpage.
But there is about as much chance of his not being prepared for Pebble Beach as there is of it raining during the tournament -- namely next to zero.
With a victory Woods would join Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus with a record four Open victories.
He would also move within two major titles of catching all-time leader Nicklaus on 18.
That mark seemed almost a formality for Woods a decade ago after he won the 2008 U.S. Open for his 14th major title.
A well-documented sex scandal and then a subsequent potentially career-ending back injury, however, kept him from adding to his tally for more than a decade.
But just when Nicklaus' record seemed safe, Woods put it back into play with his Masters triumph.
To win his 16th major he will have to regain the assured putting touch he displayed in 2000 on Pebble Beach's bumpy poa annua grass greens.
"With his iron play and the reduced number of drivers to be hit, Woods should feature at Pebble," Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo told Reuters.
"To win he has to putt well on poa again. He's not been iron clad on the surface for a few years."
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina)
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