The gallery circled around to watch Tiger Woods on the 13th tee at Torrey Pines, but he looked behind them toward a chain-link fence that was lined with green mesh, a padlock around the gate to keep everyone out.

This was January, five months before the U.S. Open could show off its fangs.

Hidden behind the fence was a rectangular patch of green grass, right in front of where RVs park and hang gliders take flight along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It was the new tee box built specifically for the U.S. Open, meaning a par 5 that could be reached in two was transformed into a monster at 614 yards.

Woods smiled and returned his gaze toward the fairway.

It was yet another reminder that some things aren't what they seem when the U.S. Open comes to town. Only this year, that applies to more than just extra length on an already difficult South Course at Torrey Pines.

Woods is the No. 1 player in the world at the U.S. Open for the eighth consecutive year. His six victories at Torrey Pines in the Buick Invitational tie a PGA Tour record for most wins on a single golf course.

But that doesn't necessarily make him the favorite.

Woods had surgery on his left knee two days after the Masters, and his next competitive round will be opening day of the U.S. Open. He isn't sure his health will be 100 percent. And while the circumstances are different, the last time Woods missed two months going into the U.S. Open, he missed the cut for the only time in a major.

"It's a matter of now getting to the feel of playing again," he said. "And hopefully, all that will come together come Thursday."

So maybe the favorite really is Phil Mickelson, who grew up in San Diego playing high school matches at Torrey Pines, winning on the municipal course three times at the Buick Invitational.

But those trophies came before Rees Jones Jr. doctored up the South Course with hopes of landing a U.S. Open, changing the shape of some holes and the subtleties on the greens that Mickelson once knew so well. In the seven years since the redesign, Lefty has missed the cut once, contended twice and finished a combined 52 shots behind the leaders.

"I actually think that if the conditions stayed the same at Torrey Pines as any other golf course, I think Torrey Pines is the hardest golf course in the country," Mickelson said. "Because it's 7,600 yards at sea level, with no bailout on any hole, bunkers are left and right, pins are tucked. And there's not letup.

"There aren't any fun holes there," he said. "They're all just long beasts."

And there figures to be plenty of people watching, especially since the USGA decided to group the top three players in the world for the first time, possibly creating a traveling circus with Woods, Mickelson, and Australian heartthrob Adam Scott.

All this awaits when the U.S. Open returns to Southern California for the first time in 60 years.

The last one was at Riviera in 1948, and Ben Hogan won on the course off Sunset Boulevard for the second time that year, leading to Riviera being called "Hogan's Alley."

And what to call Torrey Pines?

Given that it is hosting a modern-day U.S. Open, any nickname is likely to be a four-letter word.

The last two U.S. Opens were won at 5-over par — Angel Cabrera last year at Oakmont, Geoff Ogilvy the year before at Winged Foot, where he failed to break par in any round.

The players will know the difference, for Torrey Pines has been part of the PGA Tour landscape since 1952.

"That course is brutal in January," Zach Johnson said. "It's going to be extremely brutal come June."

That might be the only sure thing when the 108th U.S. Open gets under way Thursday at Torrey Pines, the first city-owned golf course to host a major known as the toughest test in golf.

It is rare for a U.S. Open — or any major, for that matter — to be held on a course that hosted a PGA Tour event the same year. This is the sixth time it has happened for the U.S. Open, with four of those at Pebble Beach and the other at Riviera.

Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2 and Riviera also hosted PGA Tour events and the PGA Championship in the same season.

The last time it happened was in 2000, when Woods came from five shots behind to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February, then obliterated the field in a record-setting performance to win the U.S. Open by 15 shots.

Jack Nicklaus (1972 at Pebble Beach) and Ben Hogan (1948 at Riviera) also won tour events and U.S. Opens in the same year. But no one has ever captured more than one major in California.

Whether Woods can end that streak remains to be seen.

The last time he had surgery on his left knee, in December 2002, he missed two months and returned to competition at Torrey Pines, winning by three shots while playing with Mickelson in the final round. But that was the Buick Invitational, not the toughest test in golf.

Majors, especially the U.S. Open, take on a new dimension.

Mark O'Meara is one of six players who won a PGA Tour event, then struggled on the same course that year when it held a major. He won in 1992 at Pebble Beach, and missed the cut at the U.S. Open.

"It's hard to compare, because the time of the year is so different, the weather is so different, the severity of the course conditions is so much different," O'Meara said. "I would say the conditions — speed of the greens, rough, firmness of the greens — make it a minimum of two shots harder per round, maybe three. Then throw on the hype and pressure of a major, and that's worth one shot a day.

"I think it's anywhere from 10 to 15 shots harder."

Ogilvy wasn't willing to go that far, although he said the value of the trophy had a direct correlation on the value of par.

"It's going to play shorter," he said of Torrey Pines. "The (yardage) will be longer, but the ball is going to go farther because it goes so short in January. I think it will be at least two shots harder than what we play."

Ogilvy can be a deep thinker, and he would love to see a parallel universe where the same field was assembled to play the same golf course in the same conditions, the only difference being the name of the tournament.

"If we played the San Diego Invitational on the same course and called it a U.S. Open," he said, "the scores would be higher."

All that matters, however, is something Hogan once told Nick Faldo. The six-time major champion visited Hogan at his club to gain insight on what it takes to win the U.S. Open.

Hogan's response?

"Shoot the lowest score."