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Scenery Change at Shinnecock

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The scenery was so much different when the U.S. Open last went to Long Island.
It was two years ago at Bethpage Black, a beast of a golf course anyone could play for $31, where raucous New Yorkers cheered for Phil Mickelson, razzed Sergio Garcia and left amazed at the incomparable Tiger Woods, who won his seventh major in his last 11 tries and then set off to win the Grand Slam.
No one was close to him that Sunday. No one was close in the game. That's hardly the case now.
The U.S. Open will be played at Shinnecock Hills, an exclusive country club in the Hamptons that reeks of wealth and civility, and values its place in history as one of the five founding clubs of the U.S. Golf Association.
Players rolled up their sleeves and bashed the ball at Bethpage. At Shinnecock, they straighten their collar and carefully steer through a links-styled course that relies on wind and waist-high fescue to protect par.
The landscape is just as different at the top of golf.
Woods hasn't captured a major since he left Long Island. And for the first time since winning his first major at the '97 Masters with record-breaking, breathtaking ease, he no longer is the prohibitive favorite.
``Times have changed,'' Ernie Els said. ``I think guys get on the first tee and really believe they can win with Tiger in the field. Golf will always humble the best of them. That's where we are.''
Woods is still No. 1 in the world, but now it's a number, not a statement.
His only victory this year came at the Match Play Championship, where who you play can be more important than how you play. Woods had his worst finish ever at Augusta National as a pro. He squandered 36-hole leads in consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour, something he had not done in 18 previous occasions over five years.
``Everybody feels the intimidation factor is not what it was,'' Brad Faxon said.
Els climbed to No. 2 in the world by winning the Memorial, his third victory worldwide this year. Vijay Singh is right behind, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour after snatching the money title away from Woods last season. Phil Mickelson is playing as well as both of them, now armed with confidence after winning the Masters.
``I think Vijay and Ernie are certainly playing the best golf of anybody on tour,'' Davis Love III said. ``Leave the rankings out of it. You say, 'Who do you like for this horse race this week?' Well, you'd be hard-pressed to pass Vijay and Ernie.''
The U.S. Open is rarely a horse race. Regarded as the toughest test in golf, it is a four-day survival -- five if it goes to a playoff -- that chews up any player of any level who loses his patience or his mind. Usually, the two go together.
``You've got to be prepared to see stuff you've never seen before,'' John Cook said.
The wind blew hard only one round in each of the last two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock, and birdies were still rare. Raymond Floyd won in 1986 at 1-under 279, Corey Pavin in 1995 at even par.
``It's one of the best golf courses in the world I've played,'' Singh said. ``I think everybody is excited, but at the same time a little fearful of how tough the golf course is going to play. If the wind blows, it's going to be almost impossible.''
The course has been lengthened by about 80 yards, and tweaked in other areas. Several chipping areas have been created, similar to Pinehurst No. 2. Faxon found that instead of having the ball in an uphill lie in rough, it rolled some 20 yards away from the green, making it much tougher to get the ball close.
Mickelson spent three days at Shinnecock last week, studying the venerable course as though he were cramming for a final exam. Lefty had his first good shot at winning a major in the '95 U.S. Open, finishing four shots behind despite playing the par-5 16th in 6 over par for the week.
Nine years later, Mickelson finally has his major after winning the Masters with a 31 on the back nine.
``I'm looking forward to the U.S. Open this year,'' Mickelson said. ``It's not because I won't have to answer the question of a guy who's never won a major. It's because I have a lot of confidence now, a lot of belief that I can break through and win big tournaments.''
Els' confidence is typically high coming into any U.S. Open. He is a two-time champion (Oakmont in '94 and Congressional in '97), although he doesn't have the best memories of Shinnecock. He was the defending champion that year and in the traditional pairing with British Open champion Nick Price and the U.S. Amateur champ -- Woods, playing in his first U.S. Open.
Els missed the cut. Woods didn't even make it through two rounds, tearing ligaments in his wrist on the third hole of the second round while trying to hack out of the rough. He withdrew three holes later.
``He took a cut out of that rough like I've never seen before,'' Price said. ``Now, he might be able to get away with it because he's that much stronger. He was a skinny little guy in those days.''
Not anymore. Everyone is wondering what happened to the guy who dominated the majors during a three-year stretch.
This isn't the longest Woods has gone without winning a major; he went 10 majors from the '97 Masters to the '99 PGA Championship. Jack Nicklaus, whose record 18 professional majors is the benchmark Woods chases, once went 12 consecutive majors without winning during his prime.
That intimidating presence started to wane a month after he left Long Island.
Woods was two shots out of the lead going into the third round of the British Open at Muirfield, primed to add the third leg of the Grand Slam. But in whipping wind off the Firth of Forth, Woods crashed to an 81. A month later at Hazeltine, he flinched trying to catch Rich Beem at the PGA, and even Woods closing with four straight birdies wasn't enough to scare the former car stereo salesman.
``He had just won two majors and was going for the Grand Slam. That gap was so big,'' Els said. ``I didn't see any light there. That Saturday (at Muirfield) really changed a lot of things, how we see it today. Since then, it's been quite different. There is a huge shift.''
Woods might not be the clear-cut favorite, but he figures to command the most attention at this U.S. Open.
His swing is under constant scrutiny, and so is his split two years ago from longtime coach Butch Harmon. Harmon recently suggested Woods look at videotape of his 2000 swing to see how far off he is. Woods says he is tinkering with his swing to make it even better, although he gets lockjaw whenever he is asked to explain exactly what he's working on.
Then again, Woods still commands respect from his peers.
``Other players are playing better,'' Faxon said. ``But where would everybody else be if Tiger was still in the form he was? It wouldn't look that way. We all know how good he can be.''
And everyone knows how tough the U.S. Open can be -- especially at Shinnecock Hills.
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