TULSA, Okla. -- When Nick Faldo was at the top of his game, he met Ben Hogan and asked the four-time champion the secret to winning a U.S. Open.
''Shoot the lowest score,'' Hogan replied.
It no longer seems that simple with Tiger Woods around.
When the 101st U.S. Open starts Thursday at steamy Southern Hills, the 25-year-old Woods will be gunning for an unprecedented fifth straight major championship, a streak that already ranks among the greatest in sports.
He is dominating golf, especially the majors, with a game that has no apparent weakness and an intimidation that only a few others have had.
''I've got to believe that I've got a good chance of playing well and winning this week,'' said Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion. ''But we're competing against a guy that's dominating a sport unlike anybody else.''
Shooting the lowest score will always be the objective in golf, but Woods has made a mockery of what that score should be. A year ago, his 12-under par was four strokes better than the previous record and 15 shots better than everyone else in that U.S. Open.
David Duval had a 274 at Augusta National, a score that could have been exchanged for a green jacket in all but four of the previous 64 Masters. Alas, Woods had a 272 to make it a clean sweep of the majors.
Bob May set a PGA Championship record with a 270 last year. Moments later, Woods made a 5-foot birdie putt on the final hole to match him, then won in a three-hole playoff.
No one is quite sure what the winning score will be at Southern Hills.
The Perry Maxwell design is an American classic -- bending, tree-lined fairways and heavily contoured greens, a combination that requires players to think their way around in suffocating heat.
The one certainty is that until anyone shows otherwise, Woods is the man to beat.
''We all know that Tiger might very well have a great chance to win this week,'' Duval said. ''I think you come to the realization that you have to play very well and nearly mistake-free, and expect to be battling with him come Sunday.''
Duval has done that in his past two majors.
In the British Open, he cut a six-stroke deficit to Woods in half after eight holes before Woods pulled away to an eight-stroke victory. In the Masters, Duval was tied for the lead on the back nine until one mistake -- a 7-iron over the 16th green -- and two short birdie putts that refused to fall.
Top players won't say that Woods is intimidating, whether it's head-to-head on the course or simply seeing his name anywhere near the lead.
''I think certain players, he plays with their minds,'' Lee Westwood of England said. ''But I think the realistic contenders for majors, I don't think he would have that affect.''
Still, there is no denying they are aware.
A year ago, Davis Love III was 11 strokes ahead of Woods after two rounds of the Byron Nelson Classic and said, ''I don't know if he's ever far enough behind.'' Woods wound up missing the playoff by one stroke.
Colin Montgomerie was asked two weeks ago if he thought he was playing well enough to win the U.S. Open.
Montgomerie stared at the reporter and finally replied, ''Why? Is Tiger injured?''
This was the advantage Jack Nicklaus had while he was winning 18 professional majors, the standard of greatness in golf and the number Woods now chases.
''He knew he was going to win, you knew he was going to win, and he knew that you knew he was going to win,'' Tom Weiskopf once said of Nicklaus.
Golf has not reached the point where Woods is unbeatable. Four straight majors does not give him a two-stroke advantage when he steps on the first tee Thursday afternoon, nor does it mean the rough will be any less penal or the cup a little larger.
''Tiger would be the first one to admit that he has to play well to win,'' Nick Price said. ''The question is when he plays well, can anyone beat him? There are a few guys out there that can, but I would say this: You can probably count them on one hand.''
The likely suspects are Duval, Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, perhaps even Sergio Garcia. All of them have made mistakes when challenging Woods -- Duval and Mickelson at the Masters, Singh at The Players Championship, Garcia this year at Bay Hill, Els in the second round of the British Open when he had the lead and went to sleep with a lackluster round.
Mistakes are expected at a U.S. Open. Wood makes the fewest, and seems to have created an impression among others that they can't afford any.
''When he plays really well, he doesn't seem to make that many mistakes,'' Price said. ''And when the other guys are playing well, they make a few mistakes. They have to stop making those mistakes if they're going to challenge him.''
Garcia took it one step further.
''The way to beat Tiger is to be perfect,'' he said. ''If not, congratulate him.''
That's what they have done at the past four majors, and there has been nothing to suggest this week will be any different. Woods is hitting it flush from the tee, crisp off the fairway and has control of his pace with the putter.
''When you couple all those factors with his mental discipline and his intensity and his drive, it makes a very formidable opponent,'' Price said.
The only thing Woods lacks is a formidable challenger. The search resumes Thursday at Southern Hills.
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