HE'S AHEAD OF THE GAME

Times Staff Writer

The instructions are straight from the book on Pebble Beach Golf Links on how to play the sixth hole: "The optimum placement for the tee shot is left center of the fairway."

But that's not how Tiger Woods played it. He knocked his drive into the right rough, the ball diving into a thick patch of grass atop the lip of a fairway bunker. It was the third round of the 2000 U.S. Open, and Woods seemed to be in trouble up over his ankles.

As far as defining moments go, what happened next was a dictionary's worth, not only for the history of the U.S. Open, but also for Woods and his legacy.

From this position, the normal play would be to dry your sweaty hands and chop the ball back onto the fairway. Woods doesn't play the normal way. Standing 210 yards from the flagstick, he grabbed a seven-iron, took the blind angle over the trees and the cliff, and smacked the ball onto the green 10 feet from the hole.

The results were immediate . . . two-putt birdie, lead grows, game over.

Woods wound up winning that U.S. Open, his first, by 15 shots, which broke the previous best margin in a major championship by two strokes. That record had been around for a while, but only if you consider 138 years a long time, or since 1862 when Old Tom Morris won the British Open at Prestwick.

We know now that Woods plows through record books with alarming ease, thanks to an undeniable skill level that's unmatched in this era. If playing great were all that Woods is about, that would probably be plenty, but there's another quality even more important than skill.

It's his mind, and that very well could be his greatest weapon.

Woods didn't invent mental toughness in golf, not with the hard-boiled megastars who passed this way before and went by the names of Hagen, Jones, Sarazen, Snead, Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer and Watson. But there is no one better who is now playing golf.

When the U.S. Open starts this week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, we will see many players who can drive the ball 300 yards and drop a seven-iron close to the pin.

But can they do it when the pressure is the greatest, when the lights are on, when the intimidation factor of a major championship scares the air right out of your lungs?

With trophies of his 13 major titles in his den at home in Florida, Woods owns the evidence that he can handle it, probably better than anyone else . . . maybe ever.

"Tiger," Jack Nicklaus said, "is a world apart."

Woods doesn't win every major, for sure; neither did Nicklaus. But right now Woods has a 10-major lead over the next-closest major winners -- Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, who have three.

Woods was second at last year's Open at Oakmont, Pa., where Angel Cabrera was the only player who beat him. He was second at the Masters this year, when Trevor Immelman was the only player who beat him.

Is anybody surprised that Woods always seems to be in the hunt? He isn't surprised.

Tiger knows toughness.

"Mental toughness, I think you could put it into words," he said. "It's stuff like you never give up. You never give in to anything. You never accept anything but the best from yourself. You can always push to get better."

That's exactly what impresses Hank Haney the most about Woods -- his desire to improve, even when he's already the best player. Haney, Woods' swing coach, said his client's ability to focus at combustible points in a round is unequaled.

"Tiger, he's at his calmest when he's in the last round and things are coming down to the end," Haney said. "It's absolutely amazing. He is just incredible.

"It's such a compelling study to see how he handles things."

Morris Pickens, a sports psychologist who helped Zach Johnson win the Masters last year, has studied Woods. He said Tiger is a different animal.

"Everybody gets to a certain physical point, but it's more of a mental thing out there," Pickens said. "There are more guys that can physically hit the shots if they don't matter, but there aren't many guys who can mentally do it when it does matter."

As mentally disciplined as Woods has been, he was vulnerable after the death of this father, Earl, in 2006. He missed the cut in his first tournament after that, the U.S. Open. But Woods was quickly himself again, winning the next two majors he played -- the British Open and the PGA Championship -- and picked up right where he had left off in his running of the department of mind games.

Sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who helped Immelman win the Masters, said Woods' record in majors is a testament to his powers of positive thinking.

"I think it's easier to win majors because so few people think they can win them," said Rotella, author of "Your 15th Club, the Inner Secret to Great Golf."

"It's just too big for some people's minds to comprehend. Tiger does that pretty well. I think he goes to a major with that purpose. He doesn't care how he does it; he's got a picture in his head.

"Since he's been a little kid, he's been after Jack Nicklaus' record. Have you ever heard anybody else say that? Tiger's got all the confidence in the world."

Rotella said that success or failure in golf boils down to the basics.

"It's a battle against doubt and fear," he said. "You see the ball go in the hole or you have a little doubt. It's a thin line."

It's a line that Woods walks with ease, traveling his own path through page after page of the history books and mapping his own legacy. Chances are good his will be about victories, but the method he used to accumulate them will certainly be hailed.

Adam Scott is tutored by Butch Harmon, who was Woods' swing coach when he turned pro, and the similarities in their swings are obvious. But Scott remains in awe of how Woods sets himself apart, not just from him, but also from everyone.

It's Tiger's mind that worries Scott.

"His mental approach and discipline separate him so far, and you can't help but think how confident he must be after winning these tournaments for 10 years," Scott said. "I know when I win a tournament how confident I feel the next time I tee it up. I can't begin to imagine how confident he must feel when he tees it up, so I certainly think that's a huge asset that he has over all of us."

Haney said he credits Woods' parents, Earl and Kultida, for all of their son's mental attributes.

"He's been trained since a very young age to concentrate and focus and stay in the moment," Haney said. "That's what everybody tries to do. But what you see with Tiger, he's has so much experience, an experience that's a whole different level of experience because he's playing in the last group on Sunday."

On that subject, Woods couldn't disagree. He credited his father for helping him with course management and strategy for coming up with ways to make him tougher, to avoid letting outside factors affect him. Woods said that when he was young, the only thing he could rely on was his mind to get around a golf course.

He's had few problems getting around Torrey Pines, at least in the Buick Invitational, where he has won six times as a pro and the last four times in a row. But now we're talking about Torrey Pines and the U.S. Open, where the stakes are raised considerably and only the strongest will survive.

Woods knows he's been here before, recognizing this is familiar territory for a notorious front-runner.

"The back nine on Sunday of a major championship is a whole different animal," Woods said. "The pressure's much more immense. You deal with the different type of emotions . . . so it makes for a very interesting atmosphere."

Woods called that atmosphere "frenzied."

Just by looking at him when he starts his pre-shot routine, pulls a club from the bag, a stoic look on his face, his gaze fixed on a target, you don't get the idea that he's being pulled in the wrong direction. It's his mind game, and so far in his career, he's been winning that one too.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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Thursday-Sunday (first-round TV coverage: Thursday, 10 a.m.-noon, ESPN; noon-2 p.m., Ch. 4; 2-5 p.m., ESPN)

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

World golf rankings

Tiger Woods has played in only five PGA Tour events this year, but he's still nearly 10 points up on second-place Phil Mickelson in the world golf rankings.

Geoff Olgilvy

Rank: 5

Points: 5.59

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Ernie Els

Rank: 4

Points: 5.84

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Adam Scott

Rank: 3

Points: 5.86

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Phil Mickelson

Rank: 2

Points: 10.13

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Tiger Woods

Rank: 1

Points: 19.82

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