PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — He looked so young. So slender. So perfect.
As he walked up the 18th fairway and stole a glance in the direction of the Pacific Ocean that Sunday afternoon in 2000, Tiger Woods might as well have been looking into his future. For at that moment, it seemed that vast and glorious.
Woods was on his way to winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, breaking a 138-year-old record for the widest margin of victory in a major. The headline on Sports Illustrated that week called it the greatest performance in golf history.
He was 24, and the world couldn't wait to see where Tiger's story would go from there.
Ten years later, the U.S. Open is back at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and Tiger Woods remains the No. 1 player in the world.
This time around, his eyes do not look quite so young. His shoulders and chest have grown more muscular and broad. And from all indications, his world is far from perfect.
For the first time in his pro career, Woods enters the U.S. Open still searching for his first victory of the season. His swing has been out of whack, and he is without a coach. A neck injury continues to bother him. And a scandal has turned his personal life upside down.
Since that first U.S. Open win, Woods has achieved unimaginable wealth and fame. He has methodically closed the gap between himself and the most famed records of Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead.
But at 34, has he lived up to the expectations of 10 years ago?
Maybe he is being purposefully coy. Or maybe he judges by a different standard.
Whatever the reason, Woods has declined to call the 2000 U.S. Open his greatest performance. He mentions the 1997 Masters, which he won by a record 12 strokes for his first victory in a major. He says he hit the ball better in the 2000 British Open, which he won by eight strokes to complete a career grand slam.
So even if Woods is reluctant to call that four-day trip around Monterey Peninsula the finest tournament of his career, others will say it for him. At the time, Rocco Mediate said the rest of the tour did not stand a chance for the next dozen years. Darren Clarke said Woods was playing a different game from everyone else.
Even now, 10 years later, memories are fresh.
"It was the greatest performance I've ever seen in the game," Phil Mickelson said Tuesday after his practice round. "That was the best ball-striking and the best putting tournament that's ever been performed, in my opinion."
It is one thing to set a record in relation to a course, to shoot a low score in a particular tournament. Sometimes conditions are favorable, and sometimes a player gets hot for a round or two. It is something else entirely to dust the rest of the field.
That suggests something is different between one player and everyone else. And the way Woods' lead kept expanding in the 2000 U.S. Open, that was exactly the impression everyone had.
"That was really a wakeup call for a lot of guys," said Ernie Els, who finished second and called it an embarrassment. "A lot of guys started changing their game."
For a while Woods lived up to his insane standards. From the 2000 Memorial to the 2001 Memorial, Tiger won 10 of 23 tour events he entered, including four consecutive majors. And talk of winning more majors than Nicklaus' 18 became commonplace.
But life has a way of intruding on dreams, and Woods has had his share of setbacks. He has maintained his No. 1 ranking for all but a handful of months in the past decade, but he has never seemed quite as dominant as he was 10 years ago.
There have been multiple knee operations. There was a changing of coaches in an attempt to revamp his swing and take pressure off his left knee. His father passed away. And the revelation seven months ago of his apparent infidelities delayed the start of his 2010 season.
Now, six questions into a U.S. Open news conference, Woods is being asked about his marital status. ("That's none of your business," Woods responded.) He is asked about playing without a coach for the first time. ("There's a lot of guys out here who don't have swing coaches.") He is even asked about the possibility of retiring. ("I've probably got another week in me.")
He still is the best player in the world — in ranking and prestige — but the aura surrounding Woods has been punctured. If not by his deeds, than by his body. If not by his results, than by the competition.
With 14 victories in majors, he may still catch Nicklaus at 18. And with 71 career victories on the tour, he will still likely run down Snead's record of 82. It's just that nothing is quite as certain as it once seemed.
For a player who has always spurred talk of future possibilities, Tiger Woods returns to Pebble Beach this week perhaps looking to recapture a little of his past.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]