Similar Cast of Contenders in New York

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The U.S. Open, which will dominate golf's biggest stage next month, has returned to New York. It gets there a lot. This time the venue is historic Shinnecock Hills out on Long Island.
 
There is a certain kind of irony in trying to divine which player we should consider to be the favorite for this ballyhooed renewal of our national championship.
 
The favorite should be Jim Furyk, the defending champion. Furyk best combines the patience, short game and course management skills to triumph at Shinnecock, a place noted for capricious winds and a defiant routing that, in Ben Crenshaw's words, 'goes every whichway.'
 
But Furyk is recovering from wrist surgery and almost certainly won't tee it up at the U.S. Open. The best guess is Furyk will return two weeks after Shinnecock at the Cialis Western Open. The last time a champion defended successfully in the U.S. Open was 1989 when Curtis Strange managed the feat at Oak Hill.
 
The last time the U.S. Open came to Long Island was two years ago at Bethpage Black where Tiger Woods held off Phil Mickelson by three shots. The huge crowds at Bethpage treated Woods like a rock star but they saved their wildest enthusiasm for Mickelson.
 
Don't expect that to change. This time, however, the early favorite to win the tournament is Mickelson, not Woods. In case you have been snorkeling in the Hebrides for the last six months, Mickelson won the Masters, his first major, in April. He is the early leader for the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award. And he showed well the last time the Open came to Shinnecock, tying for fourth in 1995.
 
Woods will probably be the favorite among the bettors by the time the tournament begins. And much of the reason for that is because said bettors are so used to putting Tiger's name at the top of the list. The fact of the matter is Woods is struggling mightily with his driver. And he has been for some time.
 
Shinnecock will be a little bit longer and a little bit tighter (the spot from where winner Corey Pavin launched his defining 4-wood on the 72nd hole in 1995 is now rough) than it was last time around. This does not work in Woods' favor.
 
But we have learned to never say never with Woods. So keep him on the short list with Mickelson and ... yes ... Sergio Garcia. Garcia drives it longer and straighter than any of the top players at the moment. And his recent win at Byron Nelson's tournament two weeks ago validated the swing changes he had incorporated into his game. It has been 34 years since a European, Tony Jacklin, won a U.S. Open. Don't be surprised at all if Garcia ends the drought.
 
It's impossible not to like Ernie Els, who has won two U.S. Opens, and Vijay Singh, who has won none. And the best-looking longshot right now is lefty Steve Flesch, who looked very comfortable in victory at the Bank of America Colonial Sunday.
 
It has become a cliche at U.S. Opens to say the golf course will be the big winner. But that will be the case again at Shinnecock with its wonderful Stanford White Clubhouse. It's no secret that the USGA considers Shinnecock, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2 its three show-stopper venues.
 
How exciting it will be then when Mickelson holds off the field again and finds himself halfway to the professional Grand Slam.
 
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