PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) – The tee shot was pure power, right down the middle of the fourth fairway at Pinehurst No. 2, a perfect drive by Masters champion Tiger Woods.

The next shot Tuesday morning looked like it came from some guy who missed the cut in Dallas.

It went right of the fairway, right of the rough, beyond a sandy cart path and about 15 yards short of landing in the backyard of a two-story home. Woods looked at the ground, asked for another ball and pulled that one into the rough just short and left of the green.

His record alone would indicate that Woods is the betting favorite this week at the U.S. Open. But he’s more of an enigma than an intimidator.

He arrived at Pinehurst as the No. 1 player in the world, even though that was more a byproduct of the computerized ranking system. He won against two of the strongest fields on the PGA Tour this year, coming from behind at Torrey Pines and beating Phil Mickelson in that dramatic duel at Doral.

The other victory was at the Masters, but even that came with some baggage.

He looked like the Woods of old with that stunning chip-in for birdie, when the ball made a U-turn on the 16th green, hung on the lip of the cup for what seemed like forever, then dropped for a two-shot lead. Then he looked ordinary with back-to-back bogeys, having to win in a playoff for the green jacket.

“The bogey-bogey finish at Augusta, you don’t see that from Tiger,” Luke Donald said. “You don’t expect that from Tiger. Maybe he’s just not that comfortable yet, not quite as consistent.”

No one knows what to expect.

“There’s still that unpredictability with what he’s doing,” said John Cook, a neighbor who often practices with Woods at Isleworth Country Club near Orlando, Fla.

Woods remains somewhat coy about his work with swing coach Hank Haney, saying late last year that the changes all made sense to him one day on the range before he won two straight tournaments – but saying after he won the Masters that he still has a long way to go.

Winning another green jacket didn’t make the skeptics go away.

“If I read some of the stuff, it looks like I have no game left, so I might as well quit and retire,” Woods said Tuesday. “I won a major this year – that’s pretty good. I like my chances. I’ve been playing well. This entire year has been a process of just an evolution of getting better. I’m excited about this opportunity this week.”

There are plenty of reasons for him to believe he can add the second leg of the Grand Slam, as his good friend Annika Sorenstam did this past weekend at the LPGA Championship.

Pinehurst No. 2 essentially comes down to the short game, and Woods is among the best. He circled the turtleback greens Tuesday with a variety of clubs, often using the putter, sometimes lofting chips with his wedge, occasionally using his 3-wood to bang the ball up the steep slope and onto the green.

Woods had an excellent chance to win the U.S. Open six years ago at Pinehurst, pulling within one shot of the lead until he made bogey from the bunker on the par-3 17th and finished two shots behind Payne Stewart.

But there are noticeable changes this year, some with the golf course, some with landscape on the PGA Tour.

Due to a cool spring that killed some of the grass, USGA officials had to plant sod around the slopes of the greens, and bare patches of dirt are evident on just about every hole.

“It’s very difficult to execute the shots on the lies that we’re getting around the greens, in that the grass is so closely mown,” said Phil Mickelson, the runner-up at Pinehurst in 1999.

“It’s very easy for clubs to come just slightly behind the ball, the grass grabs it and stops it, and you see guys flub it.”

That’s what’s so tough about chipping.”

Woods seemed more concerned with the rough.

There wasn’t much of it when he played a practice round last week, but it was nasty when he returned – not the thick, sticky grass found at Northeastern courses like Congressional and Winged Foot, but Bermuda grass that makes the ball sink to the ground. That’s important given the greens at Pinehurst, because players have to control their approach shots.

“Getting the ball to the green is not an easy task,” Woods said.

Woods will play the first two rounds with Chris DiMarco, who pushed him into the playoff at the Masters. It will be another reminder of how he won the first major of the year, and how much hard work it required at the end.

DiMarco remembers the time when Woods was atop the leaderboard and everyone could bank on the outcome, a feeling that no longer exists.

“I think the players have gotten better, and I think there’s a little intimidation factor that’s gone,” DiMarco said. “Once people started beating him down the stretch, that kind of faded away. That usually goes a long way.”

But for all the questions about his game, and a long list of challengers – Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Mickelson, David Toms, Sergio Garcia – Woods still managed to win the Masters and two other big tournaments.

Cook can only wonder what will happen when his consistency catches up with his talent.

“There’s a reason there’s a Big Four or a Big Five, and it’s because one guy is playing mediocre,” he said. “If that one guy is playing his best, there is no Big Four.”

AP-ES-06-14-05 1637EDT

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