Tiger Woods: The great Open unknown

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Under normal circumstances, I'd pick Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Open this week. In fact, I'd pick Woods to win the Open, reach the semifinals of the World Cup all by himself and cap the spewing oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico.

But these aren't normal circumstances. Woods hasn't been Woods for almost a year, maybe longer. His wife (for now) is said to be asking for $750 million in a divorce settlement. His past three tournaments ended in a missed cut, a WD because of a bad neck and a T-19. And for the first time since, well, almost forever, Woods isn't the betting favorite in a major.

The sure thing has become the human question mark. Woods is Iron Man with a rust problem.

"For some reason, people are very curious about my life," he said Tuesday afternoon in his latest State of the Tiger address.

Curious. Obsessed. Fascinated.

Woods remains the most compelling figure in sports because there's a character arc to his life. Act I was: Golf prodigy paper-shreds the record books. Act II was: Golf prodigy self-destructs.

Act III has yet to be determined. Rehabilitation? Redemption? Revulsion?

All those who know how he'll play this week, raise your hands. I've got no clue. I'm not sure Woods does, either.

We do know the 2010 Masters Tiger is different than the 2010 U.S. Open Tiger. Even though he finished with a T-4 at Augusta National in April, Woods arrived here with a better, more polished game.

"Way different, way different," he said. "I've played so much more since then. I only had a few weeks to get ready for Augusta after being off for quite a while. Now, I've been playing tournament golf basically since April.

"So it's just," Tiger said, smiling, "much different."

Different, but better? That's the question -- or, at least, one of them. Woods is oh-fer his past five majors, a span of almost two years. It's only the fourth time in his 14 years as a pro that he's taken the trophy collar in his first four starts of a season. You don't know if he'll be gone by Friday afternoon or smooching silver Sunday night on the famed 18th green.

He hasn't played here since 2002 and hasn't won here since 2000, when he napalmed the Open field by 15 strokes. It might have been the most dominating victory in the history of majors golf.

"Yeah, that was a good week," Woods said. "That was a good week."

It was also 10 years ago. The "Woods and Pebble Beach" of then is a distant relative of the "Woods and Pebble Beach" of now. For starters, Pebble has had plastic surgery and the USGA setup doesn't resemble the 2000 version.

Meanwhile, Woods has his own different look, different swing and different personal and golf-related issues. In 2000, it was all about Woods' triumphs. In 2010, it has been all about his flaws.

Thumb through the 214-page U.S. Open issue of Golf Digest. There's a full-page NBC ad about its coverage, complete with photos of Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas.

But no Woods.

There's a two-page clothing ad featuring Tom Watson. There's a two-page ad featuring Mickelson and his choice of golf clubs, and another one featuring him and an investment bank. There's even a putting aid ad with Hank Haney.

But no Woods. Anywhere. The world's No. 1-ranked player didn't have a single endorsement ad. Amazing.

Woods and Haney divorced weeks ago. Woods and Elin?

"That's none of your business," said Woods, when someone asked if he had had "a resolution" to his marital situation.

Woods' world is still upside down. He's playing more and practicing more; but by his own calendar math, his game is months behind the rest of the regulars on the Tour. His injured neck is better, but not completely healed. The same goes for his image.

Nobody fears him anymore. Why should they? It began late last summer, when Woods tried staring down someone named Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship -- and Yang didn't blink. Instead, he won and Woods lost.

Fellow pro Hunter Mahan has said that Woods' intimidation factor is on a milk carton. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin said Woods isn't guaranteed a place on the USA team. Other players are wearing red shirts on Sunday. It's madness.

"As far as my game," said Woods, now his own swing coach, "I'm very excited about how it's progressed. … I'm actually really excited to get out there and tee it up on Thursday."

Woods could hit it sideways or on fairways. He could putt like he was using a garden rake (Quail Hollow 2010) or drain everything (Pebble 2000). He could miss the cut or win it all. The unknown is actually more interesting than the known.

If you think the events of the past seven months have broken Woods, forget it. He was cordial, polite and cooperative during Tuesday's news conference, but he said and revealed little -- except that he's not going anywhere.

When asked how long his "competitive candle will burn," Woods paused for only a moment before he said, sarcastically and kiddingly, "I probably got another week in me.

"Nah. I love it. I love playing. I love practicing. And once that starts going away, when I start not wanting to get ready or I'm not ready to play, then I've got to get the hell out. Because then I'm not going to be in the right place to win golf tournaments."

This place -- Pebble Beach -- and this tournament -- the U.S. Open -- is where he won in historic, preposterous fashion. Will he do it again?

Woods says yes. As much as I'd like to believe him, my heart and my head say no.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.