Waiting in the Wings at Winged Foot

By Mercer BaggsJune 14, 2006, 4:00 pm
U.S. OpenMAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Michael Campbell has played 10 stroke-play events around the world this year. He has missed six cuts. In four U.S. tournaments, not including the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship where he lost in the first round, hes missed three cuts ' and the one time he did make it to the weekend was in the Mercedes Championships, where there is no cut.
And yet the Kiwi seems to be brimming with confidence. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he was in similar form last year heading into the U.S. Open, having missed six cuts in 12 starts.
Michael Campbell
Michael Campbell and a host of other players are confident heading into round one.
His mediocre results a year ago didnt keep him from winning his first major championship at Pinehurst. And he believes it wont hinder him from keeping his title this time around.
My form coming into this week is pretty similar to last year, he said. I feel very comfortable with my surroundings now being a major winner, and being the defending champion is a label that Im actually very, very comfortable with, so Im very happy with that.
Campbell is also happy to be hanging in the background, waiting to surprise everyone for a second time.
Once again, no one sort of has given me a chance this year, apart from myself, which is the most important thing, he said.
Let Tiger and Vijay and Phil have all the attention and I can just do what I did last year. Fantastic. Bring it on.
For the first three days leading up to the start of the 106th U.S. Open all talk has centered around three topics: Tiger Woods return to competition after his fathers death; Phil Mickelsons bid for three straight major victories; and the newly implemented graduated rough.
In their shadows are several upper-echelon players who are being overlooked this week, including the aforementioned Vijay Singh.
Singh, like Campbell, is riding a wave of confidence. But while Campbells is derived from a triumph 12 months ago, Singhs comes from a win just last week at the Barclays Classic, where he ended a 10-month winless drought on the PGA TOUR.
All Im taking from last week is my confidence, my win, and try to follow up this week, said Singh, who noted that outside of an improved outlook, his most recent victory means little come Thursday.
This is a different golf tournament from last week ' different rough, different atmosphere, different feeling, totally a different mind-set.
Singh has won three major championships, but never this event. He does, however, have six top-10 finishes in 12 career Open starts. And he likes the way Winged Foot is playing as compared to recent venues.
I think whoever set up this golf course knows how to set up a U.S. Open. Previous years, I think it got a little ridiculous, he said.
While Singh is going for his first Open title, Retief Goosen is vying for his third. Were it not for a final-round blow-up a year ago at Pinehurst, where he led by three entering the final round and closed in 81, he would be the two-time defending champion this week.
As it is, he is searching for a bit of redemption, and his first victory of the year.
My game hasnt been that hot this year, so hopefully something will happen soon, this week, said Goosen, who won the 2001 U.S. Open on another AW Tillinghast design, Southern Hills, and in 2004 at Shinnecock.
At Shinnecock, the low-key South African put on a sensational putting display to hold off Mickelson. That deft stroke, though, has been missing for the better part of 06.
I wouldnt say Im unusually confident at the moment; my putter has been a bit cold. I havent been putting well at all, he said. But I like difficult greens, so hopefully putting well on difficult greens is going to pull me through this week.
Goosen is one of six players ranked in the top 10 in the world who has yet to win this season. Fellow South African Ernie Els is another.
Els is still trying to find a comfort level that existed prior to injuring his left knee last July. He won late last year in South Africa and came close to winning on the European Tour this year, losing in a playoff to Woods in Dubai, but hasnt been much of a factor in the States. In fact, he hasnt won a PGA TOUR event since 2004.
I haven't had a great year up until now, obviously. I've been looking for that one round that might turn it around for me, he said. But I've been working hard on every aspect of my game, really. The putting has been holding me back a little bit the last month or so. But, you know, I think it might be a good week for me this week because of the fact that it's the U.S. Open.
Els is a two-time U.S. Open winner, capturing the 1994 version at Oakmont and the 97 edition at Congressional. Furthering his positive thoughts is the fact that this venue resembles those two layouts, in that its more of a traditional, tree-lined course ' as opposed to the last two venues, Shinnecock Hills and Pinehurst.
I love these types of golf courses, Els said. As a kid growing up watching U.S. Open golf, I loved watching the U.S. Open when it was played at golf courses like these, Winged Foot and Oakmont, golf courses like that ' tree lined, old, traditional golf courses. It's great playing a golf course like this.
Els, Goosen and Campbell have given International players five U.S. Open victories in the last 12 years. On the other hand, no European-born player has won this particular major since Tony Jacklin in 1970.
I dont think its really coincidence, said Englishman Luke Donald. I think U.S. Opens are always set up very similar ' narrow fairways; thick rough; slopey, usually quite quick greens. This is the type of setup where a lot of Europeans arent used to that.
Donald, however, is accustomed to and comfortable on American courses ' U.S. Open and otherwise. The former Northwestern All-America won the Honda Classic in March for his second career TOUR title, and has made the cut in both of his previous Open appearances.
On the cusp of the top 10, currently ranked 11th in the world, Donald feels that it is time for him to contend over the weekend in a major championship. And if its going to happen, its most likely to happen here.
Ive always said U.S. Opens seem to suit my game, he said. I dont hit the ball 300 yards every time. I hit the ball quite straight. I rely on hitting fairways and hitting greens and kind of grinding out par sometimes, especially on tough courses. Thats the kind of game plan you need for a U.S. Open.
I would put (the) U.S. Open at the top of the majors for my chance of winning one.
Campbell always figured if he were to ever win a major championship that it would likely come at the Open Championship. Instead, it came here. And now that hes got one, he wants another.
Its amazing, once you get the bug, once you win your first major, you want more. Im not here to win one major, Campbell said. My goal is to be a multiple major winner.
And whether anyone believes him or not -- or whether or not anyone is paying attention at the moment -- he feels like its going to take a major effort for anyone to take away his title.
Being here this week makes me very excited, makes me feel very at ease with myself and very comfortable with my defense, he said. Im feeling very, very confident right now.
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