Were it not for the stubbornness of a few blades of grass -- the ones occupying the bits of North Carolina earth that stood between his ball and the cup on the 70th and 71st holes of the season's second major championship -- Tiger Woods would have arrived at Baltusrol Golf Club this week seeking more than just his third PGA Championship or his 11th career title. Were the grass kinder or his putter truer, this would be the week Woods courted golf's most elusive feat, the Grand Slam.
The fact that it is not so -- that instead of an unprecedented Slam, Woods is merely shooting for a third major this season to go along with his wins at the Masters and British Open -- has produced an atmosphere of stale inevitability: Everyone expects Woods to win, but no one can get very excited about it.
"The atmosphere was a little different" in 2000, when he won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, Woods said. "I've done this before. I've won three majors in one year. . . . In the media, the novelty factor is not there anymore. I've already done it."
And then, as if suddenly realizing he still faces the formality of playing those 72 holes this week before the trophy is handed to him Sunday evening, he added: "Hopefully, I can do it again."
A win here this week, with its implication of completing and validating the complex swing overhaul that left him majorless from June 2002 to April 2005, might not give him a Grand Slam, but it would give the rest of golf eight dark months -- until next spring's Masters -- to worry about the possibilities for 2006 and beyond.
"It seems like he's got his focus back," Englishman Luke Donald said, somewhat ominously, of Woods. "He's got his determination back."
If Woods were to win, he would reach the end of his 20s (he turns 30 on Dec. 30) with 11 major championships, seven shy of Jack Nicklaus's record -- which, as anyone familiar at all with the Tiger lore surely knows, Woods kept thumbtacked to the wall above his bed as a youngster. Nicklaus himself, by contrast, won only seven majors in his 20s.
Just as when he was a child, Woods's ambitions as a young man know no bounds. Even after winning the U.S. Open by a staggering 15 shots and the British Open by eight in 2000, and after tacking on two more Masters titles and a U.S. Open in 2001 and 2002, Woods decided to fire coach Butch Harmon and put himself through a major swing change, his second in four years.
"I was beaten up in the press a little bit for making the changes: 'Why would you make a change?' " Woods said. "Well, I remember having the same conversations with a lot of people in the media in '98 and '99: 'Why would you make a change when you won the  Masters by 12?' Well, I could win by 13, and I could win more of them."
Woods said he is often asked if he wants to go back to the way he played golf and won tournaments in 2000. "No, I don't want to go back to 2000," he said. "I want to become better than that."
Woods's struggles during the swing-change years of 2003 and 2004 helped give rise to a pack of challengers that, along with Woods, has become known as "The Big Five": Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. All except Els, who is out of action this summer because of a knee injury, won at least one major in that two-year period.
Speaking of the differences between 2000 and 2005, Woods said, "Don't forget the other guys have gotten better as well. They have gone back and really worked on their games and stepped it up and are playing much better than they did then."
For all Woods's air of invincibility, there is a case to be made as to why he could actually lose this week. For one, while his major titles this year have come on wide-open courses -- Augusta National and the Old Course at St. Andrews -- where driving accuracy is not so imperative, grand old Baltusrol, with its heavy rough and 25-yard-wide fairways, will punish severely those who don't drive it in the fairways.
Woods is also no longer the dagger-thrower who could be counted upon to hit every shot perfectly and drain every critical putt down the stretch of a major. At Augusta this April, he finished bogey-bogey on Sunday to fall into a playoff with Chris DiMarco, which Woods eventually won. Then, at Pinehurst, he bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 on Sunday to lose to Campbell by two shots.
Predictably, Woods bristled at any suggestion he had choked away the U.S. Open.
"People have said, 'You lost the tournament on 16 and 17 on Sunday,' " Woods said. "That's wrong. I lost it all four days on the greens, because I did not putt well any day. To putt that poorly and still have a chance to win the U.S. Open, that's when you know you're hitting the ball pretty good."
And when it was suggested to Woods that he now has some haunting episodes from the golf course in his memory bank that were not there in 2000, he shot back, "Man, you guys [in the media] act like I hit it great all the time back then. I hit some bad shots."
To argue otherwise would be to imply that the painful swing overhaul was unnecessary, that there was no room for improvement. To Woods, it was necessary. And there is always room for improvement, even when you are winning majors by 15 shots, even when you are about to win another.
"People ask me [in regards to the swing change], 'Are you there yet?' " Woods said. "No. You never get there. When I made my nice run there in '99 and 2000, [and] I won 17 [tournaments], that was great. But it can always be better, right?"