This isn't the U.S. Open. It is an homage to Donald Ross's eccentric test of imagination -- Pinehurst No. 2. That's why Tiger Woods can win. To be more blunt, that's why Tiger -- who is just two shots behind after 36 holes -- better win. It's going to be a long time before he meets another Open course that plays to his strengths and, more important, forgives his weaknesses.

Out of respect for Ross, who nursed every nook here for 40 years, the USGA has kept its hands off the Scot's masterwork. Normally, playing in the Open is like being in jail. You are punished relentlessly for the smallest mistakes until you get a persecution complex. By contrast, No. 2 is a minimum-security facility. You have enough freedom to keep your dignity.

It is hard to believe you are at the Open. Why, the course is pretty! Where are the dreary acres of brown rough, bent double from its own weight? The three-inch stuff beside the fairways here wouldn't scare any low-handicapper; around the greens, the grass is shaved just like The Masters. Here, you don't hack your ball out of hay but, rather, play deft pitches and chips that skitter over huge hillocks and humps like crazed mice.

Nothing here intimidates the eye, oppresses the spirit, outrages the sense of justice or makes you feel as if you have been chained to a pew to hear a four-day lecture on the wages of sin. What happened to the USGA? Has there been a purge? Players say No. 2 is "very tough but very fair"; "It gets you excited to play"; "This is the ultimate"; and, from Greg Norman, "the best Open setup I've ever played -- by a multiple of 10."

Nobody, however, feels as released from bondage as Woods. For the past three Junes, he has been in constant Open torment. He has had to hit 1-irons off tees. From the five- to six-inch rough, where his violent swing and thin wrists expose him to injury, he has flinched at impact and, sometimes, hit the ball one-handed. Near the greens, he has gouged lob wedge shots, which no one can truly control, from the spinach. A portrait of genius neutralized.

Knowing the deck was stacked against him, Woods was ready to burst into indignant flames. Wearing his anger on his sleeve, he was triple-bogey tinder. The U.S. Open had the young Tiger's number.

Supposedly, the U.S. Open identifies the best golfer. Actually, it usually identifies the most patient, restrained, straight-hitting, hot-putting player. The game's belters and swashbucklers -- who thrive at The Masters -- are systematically punished. That is not the case this year. The ideal player for this 92-year-old course, which has never held an Open, would hit the ball 330 yards. Then, he would have a brave creative touch with a variety of chipping clubs including that bizarre choice, the 3-wood. He would belt it, laugh at the ludicrous length of the par-4s and, when he found his ball in some improper place, invent something inspired.

The prototype in question is, of course, Tiger. For example, at the 485-yard eighth hole Friday, he drove wildly, yet punched an iron between a gap in the trees to the green for a two-putt par. At the par-5 10th hole, he chipped with his 3-wood up a bank and around a trap for a gimme birdie. Neither of those recovery shots would have been plausible in past Opens.

Until this week, it seemed that, along with Sam Snead, Woods might be the most talented U.S. player who was also absolutely ill-suited to winning his own national championship. Now, he may have a reprieve. As Phil Mickelson says, "It makes you much more relaxed to know you don't have to hit every shot perfectly." Relaxed golfers? With their imperfections excused? In the U.S. Open? How hideously modern. What next, MTV in the 19th-hole grill?

The only similarity between Pinehurst and a typical Open layout is that it's an extraordinarily hard test. But it's an entirely different exam. And it's one Woods has no excuse not to pass.

"I love these conditions because it brings out the imagination," Woods said Friday after a well-managed, temper-free 71 that left only Payne Stewart, Mickelson and David Duval ahead of him. "So many U.S. Opens, if you miss a fairway -- get the sand wedge, hack it back out, try to make par from 100 yards. If you miss a green, bring out the lob wedge, hack it out and try to make a 10-foot putt for par."

The Open's malicious subtext is always how to cope with life's unfairness. Tiger, frankly, hasn't coped very well. Often, he has gone from sulk to funk to club-smashing. This tournament has brought the 23-year-old's immaturity into focus.

On Thursday, Woods was slamming clubs and working himself into a self-defeating lather. Then, at the seventh hole, he somehow composed himself after a sliding 15-foot putt to save bogey dropped in the side door on the last quiver. Since then, he has taken his medicine as though he respects the doctor.

Everybody knows this is Tiger's week, Tiger's chance and Tiger's test. Now that he has gotten to the weekend in prime contention, new questions will arise. In the last two years, he has "completely rebuilt" his swing. He says it is better now. But is it tested? Can he count on it with a major at stake?

Also, Woods admits everything about his putting fell into disrepair -- posture, eye angle, hand position all were "not right." So, he has copied himself in "old videos." To Tiger, two years ago is "old."

Woods's toughest examination, however, will be one of temperament. The same excitable energy that feeds his creativity also erodes his poise. Pinehurst is still a pure Open course in one respect. Eventually, it humiliates everyone.

This weekend, when a Woods wedge shot sucks back down a false front into a deep swale or a too-firm chip scoots all the way across a green like he's playing "Annie Over," how will he react?

Will he, as he has in the past, let the Open get to him? Or will he say, "This is a brutal but exhilarating test that's just made for me."

Unlike any other USGA course he may ever play, Pinehurst No. 2 is willing to give Tiger a fair shot at his U.S. Open No. 1. If he'll take it.

CAPTION: The virtue Tiger Woods will need most this weekend is patience, for a course that may offer his best chance at a U.S. Open title.