PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Ten years ago, Tiger Woods came to this awesome meeting of land and sea and made history by doing his best impersonation of Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont. The longer the U.S. Open went on, the more insane Woods' lead became, until it was transformed into two distinct golf tournaments:

One for him and another for the B Flight.

A few things have transpired since he won by a record 15 strokes with a 12-under-par 272. He's added 11 more professional majors to the resume. He parted ways with his celebrated swing coach. He turned 30. He got married. He buried his father/best friend/mentor. He became a dad, twice. He had big-time surgery on his left knee, which caused him to miss two majors after he'd gone 91 holes on one good wheel to win his third U.S. Open. He just parted ways with a second swing coach.

And he went through a very public sex scandal that put his marriage on the rocks and the career that defined him on hold.

It's made for some decade.

Now, on to the rest of the story.

After a prolonged, self-induced layoff, he still almost won the Masters at Augusta National 2 months ago, with something less than his "A" game. He missed the cut at Quail Hollow in late April, then had to withdraw from The Players Championship the following weekend with a neck injury. He didn't come close in his last start, 2 weeks ago at the Memorial.

So Woods, 34, might not even be the favorite to win his first major in 24 months. How many would have predicted that when Pebble Beach Golf Links was awarded its fifth U.S. Open?

Still . . .

"It's great to be back," Woods, who hasn't played this layout since the 2002 AT & T, said Tuesday. "It's interesting to see how much [it] has changed.

"As far as my game is concerned, I'm very excited about how it's progressed. The more time I've been able to practice and play, it's started to solidify, and I'm actually real excited to tee it up Thursday [in a group with Lee Westwood and Ernie Els]."

Two questions later, he was asked whether his relationship with his wife Elin had reached any kind of "resolution."

"That's none of your business," he replied, for what seemed like maybe the 100th time since the scandal broke last fall.

So you expected details about a divorce settlement?

"For some reason, people are very curious about my life," he later noted.

At least his neck injury apparently was not as big of an issue as initially feared.

"It's not where I want it, but it is better, no doubt," Woods explained. "It does get sore from time to time. But I can recover for the next day. And I haven't had any days where I couldn't go the next day. That's a big step in the right direction . . .

"Getting back into the competitive atmosphere and preparation, that's something that I hadn't done for obviously a long period of time. That part has certainly become much more normal now. And I'm starting to find out how much I can and can't push myself each and every day as far as practice. I overdid it, overcooked it right before [the Masters], trying to get ready."

Back before his family life, or lack thereof, apparently became as big of an issue as every media outlet predicted, this season set up as a huge one for the man who would be king. Next month, the British Open returns to St. Andrews in Scotland, where he won by eight in 2000 and five in 2005. At this point, though, who knows? He still needs four majors to match Jack Nicklaus for the all-time lead, five to become the undisputed champ. Once, it was a foregone conclusion. And the odds seemingly are on his side, no matter what goes down this summer. Nonetheless, it at least has turned the conversation into more of a discussion.

"I think every year's a big year [in that chase], if you have a chance to win four major championships," Woods rationalized. "Certainly, the venues do set up well [this time], and some years they don't. But it doesn't mean you can't win on them."

And as vulnerable as he suddenly appears, if the golf world has learned anything during his oft-times extraterrestrial ride, it has learned never to discount him. At least not when he's holding a club on the back nine of any given Sunday. Especially on the four Sundays each year that measure posterity.

"It's never been about [intimidating the competition]," he said. "It's about winning golf tournaments. Whether you win by one or 15 doesn't matter, as long as I'm going home with the trophy. And [in 2000], I went home with the trophy nine times. So I would say that was a very successful year . . .

"I'm controlling my ball flight, controlling the shape, the trajectory. If I can't do that, I can't hit the ball the right distance. And I'm starting to do that now, and that's just from playing. The more I play, the more I get my feel back. I know I have to be patient. I know it's coming along. Where [I am] in June is where a lot of guys are in January or February."

So he's playing catch-up. Sue him. Oops, bad analogy. We might never see the Tiger of 2000 again, but that doesn't mean the Tiger we see over the next 5 to 10 years won't be nearly as unforgettable.

As long as he continues to want it badly enough.

"You just got to enjoy it," Woods insisted. "The game is just a lot of fun. And it is a game. I think a lot of people lose sight of that . . . If you have a good time with it, then there's no reason why you can't do this for a long time.

"I'm no different than anybody else. When you come out here and you play as a job for long enough and it's a grind, it starts to become a little bit of work. And it's not. It's a game. And granted, it is what we do, it's how we make a living, but in the end, it's still just a game.

"For me, I've always enjoyed practicing more than I did playing. And that's certainly true now, and I can't ever see that changing. But if that ever goes away, when I start not wanting to go get ready or I'm not ready, then being me I won't be here. I've got to get the hell out.

"Because then," he concluded, "I'm not going to be in the right place to win golf tournaments."

This week, if nothing else he's at the right venue. Particularly if memory serves. *