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A major challenge for Woods

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – They held two United States Open championships at Pebble Beach in 2000.

One ended early on Saturday afternoon. The normal weekend major championship buzz had gradually been replaced by a muted sense of astonishment. It probably hit a few ticket scalpers in the wallet, as fans and brokers outside the grounds began discovering the going rate for Sunday badges for a tournament that was already over.

And it changed professional golf forever.

There were hints of a mismatch as early as Friday, when Tiger Woods hit that sublime 7-iron from 202 yards – not to mention out of four inches of rough – on the 6th hole, stopping the ball 15 feet from the pin and prompting NBC golf analyst Roger Maltbie to famously declare, "It's not a fair fight!"

It wasn't a fair fight. And while it wasn't official until Woods signed his scorecard on Sunday, writing himself into the history books with an unfathomable 15-stroke victory, the last breath of hope had left the field and escaped into the sea air above Monterey Bay hours, if not days before.

"He was so far ahead so early that it was difficult to see a way of catching him," Lee Westwood recalled Tuesday. "So it did feel like two tournaments, really."

Westwood finished tied for fifth in 2000. Not that anyone remembers that. Notching a top-10 that year was like finishing fourth in a hot-dog eating contest. Sure your name was up near the top of the leaderboard, but it didn't make your inadequacies any easier to stomach.

Ernie Els shot 68 on Saturday, a "moving day" score under major championship conditions if there ever was one.

"I was never really in the ballgame," Els remembers.

Els remained in the other game, however, finishing tied for first among the other 62 players who made the cut while Woods completed his Sunday victory lap with a final-round 67 to finish 12-under, the lowest score in relation to par in the history of the event.

"That was really a wake-up call for a lot of guys," Els said Tuesday. "A lot of guys started changing their game a lot. And a lot of guys took their physical fitness to another level."

Woods, Els and Westwood will be reunited Thursday when they begin their 2010 U.S. Open on Pebble's No. 1 tee at 4:36 p.m. ET.

And my how things have changed.

The players did respond to that wake-up call. Body by Craig Stadler doesn't play on the PGA Tour anymore. Ray Floyd's physique and Fuzzy Zoeller's 19th-hole diet went the way of persimmon woods, giving way to Camilo Villegas' ripped biceps, fitness trailers, traveling masseuses and protein shakes.

Steve Stricker stopped at a local Denny's to grab a bite for breakfast this week. As appropriate as the order would have been, he wasn't about to touch a Grand Slam.

"No pancakes, no bread." Stricker said. "Can't be eating that stuff."

Add a fitness craze to an equipment revolution and toss in a brash, fearless crop of aggressive young players and the ball-striking gap that may have existed a decade ago has evaporated.

Tiger used to have a power advantage off the tee. He could hit his irons higher and farther than anyone, allowing him to stop balls on greens from distances others couldn't imagine. Today it's the 14-time major champion who's having his eyes opened by his challengers.

Take Dustin Johnson, a two-time winner at Pebble Beach and Woods' playing partner for Monday's practice round.

"He's just stupid long," Woods said. "It's just … it's ridiculous.

"I mean 226 (yards) yesterday on the 17th and it's into the wind and he hits 4-iron over the green. I don't know how many of you guys have that shot, but not too many of us out here do."

It's not all physical, of course.

Winning a major championship in the Tiger era has long consisted of two challenges. First, you had to battle your way into contention with 150 or so other like-minded competitors.

Make the grade against the field, and you earned the right to run the Tiger gauntlet, complete with the red shirt and the fist pumps, the bloated galleries and shrieking fans. Statistics have shown that Sunday scoring in major championships rises in direct relation to proximity to Tiger.

"I think it's true that there's an intimidation factor," reigning British Open champion Stewart Cink said Tuesday. "Not that he's trying to intimidate anybody, but it is intimidating when you play in a group and you know the fans only care about the other guy.

"It's a little unsettling when you're out there trying your guts out and you're putting everything into something and it feels a little like you're being disrespected, but that's just the nature of the beast."

But will that second hurdle be there Sunday?

Fellow Tour players have seen too much and are too smart to dismiss Woods' chances here – "Obviously Tiger's going to be there (Sunday)," Stricker said – but given the state of Woods' game and events in his personal life that began to deteriorate last Thanksgiving, the three-time Open champion's arrival at Pebble has hardly been treated like the return of a conquering hero.

There are questions about his health.

"The neck is better," Woods said Tuesday.

He's here without a safety net, having split with long-time swing coach Hank Haney in a contentious breakup in May.

"You're always your own swing instructor," Tiger countered. "When you're out there playing, you're the one who has to fix it, no one else."

His personal life remains a topic of interest.

"That's none of your business," he said.

And then there's his game. After an encouraging run at the Masters, Woods missed the cut at Quail Hollow, finishing his final nine with an uncharacteristic 43. He withdrew from the Players Championship with a neck injury, which prompted a few weeks of rest.

Last week's top-20 at the Memorial could be viewed as progress, but Tiger's swing remained erratic. He struck three spectators with tee shots while shooting a final-round 72. He currently ranks 191st on Tour in total driving, 164th in accuracy.

"As far as my game, I'm very excited about how it's progressed," said Woods, who cut his Tuesday practice round short when caddie Steve Williams raked his ball from a fairway bunker on No. 13 as the entire playing party exited stage right.

"I'm actually really excited to tee it up on Thursday."

So is the golf world. Whatever drama was lacking that Sunday in 2000 has been replaced a decade later by a certain nervous anticipation. Tiger hasn't won a major since 2008.

For the first time since Rory McIlroy was about 11 years old, a U.S. Open will be staged without Tiger Woods as a heavy favorite. Try your luck picking the winner in 2010 and you'll get the same price on Phil Mickelson as you will Woods. Westwood isn't far behind.

Given how dominant Woods was in 2000, it's amazing that he's here having to get off the ropes just to contend on Sunday. But that's how much things have changed since that final putt dropped 10 years ago.

The course has been altered. The standard PGA Tour physique has been transformed. Equipment has been amped-up. And Tiger – or at least our perception of him – will never be the same.

And the entire metamorphosis began 10 years ago on these very grounds.