Let's say one thing here and put it to bed early - if Tiger is playing well, forget it. It's over. But if he's not playing particularly well and someone else is playing very well, then it could be a horse race. Sergio Garcia certainly has a chance.
Garcia had to take a lot with him when he left Fort Worth after winning his first U.S. tournament, the MasterCard Colonial. There's no way to gauge how much of a confidence boost it gave him. It doesn't seem like he would be particularly well suited to the concise shots that have to be hit around the Track that Hogan Built - but he did it. He finished 64-65 at the Nelson on a course that was nowhere near as difficult as this one, then came and went 66-63 on the weekend to nail the Colonial. And he did it against Phil Mickelson, who is No. 2 after Tiger amongst the world's golfers. Mickelson doesn't do Sundays, at least very well, but he still would have won at Colonial had it not been for Garcia.
Garcia is just 21 years old, of course, and he would be finishing his senior year in college had he attended. He beat a field in Fort Worth that included just about every top golfer in America save Woods, and he looked confident doing it. Over 72 holes, that is plenty of time for all the warts to come to the surface. And believe me, there weren't many.
'Ben Hogan and me - everyone talks about how similar we are,' Sergio said while making his victory remarks following Colonial. No, I don't think he meant it the way it sounded. But let's recognize one thing right off - Hogan at 21 wasn't nearly as good as Sergio at 21. Of course, Hogan at 30 or 35 was an entirely different matter. But then, the Sergio at 35 is going to be a lot better than the Sergio of 21.
No, he's not as polished as Tiger, not as gifted off the tee or on the green. He may not even be the second-best or third-best, but you don't know what will happen if a hot golfer such as Garcia stays on fire for a month.
A lot of players said that the winner of Colonial should be a favorite at Southern Hills. The courses are very similar and they have the same architect in Perry Maxwell. Both are par-70s, and both have rather small greens. Sergio Garcia, perhaps?
Woods will, of course, be the favorite. He didn't win Colonial because he didn't play it. He was busy that week winning in Germany. He only played at Colonial one time, in his rookie year of 1997, and he was in contention all the way until he self-destructed on the back nine Sunday.
He should win at Southern Hills, regardless of how you slice it, dice it and chop it. He may not have as big an advantage with the shorter holes and tighter fairways, but an advantage is still an advantage.
But if not Tiger - and if not Garcia - then who? Here's a list of possibles, and why they should or shouldn't contend:
PHIL MICKELSON - Never on Sunday, he seems to be saying this year. However, he has beaten Woods a couple of times before. This year he has been in the top three seven times. That seems to be just dandy, until you realize that those seven have netted him exactly one victory. Three of those Tiger didn't play. One of them (Bay Hill) Tiger won after bouncing a ball or two off gaping spectators, defeating Mickelson in the process.
Mickelson seems to have developed the art of missing the three-footer at the most inopportune times, or blowing his driver into the next area code when it absolutely, positively has to be in-bounds. If he ever fixes such recurring tendencies, watch out! He's 30, which is considered the prime golfing age. And he is a hot golfer - every day but Sunday.
LEE WESTWOOD - Normally he would be expected to lead the contingent from Europe, but this year his wife just had a baby and he's not thinking golf at the moment. It's probably too early to make him a serious contender.
VIJAY SINGH - Early in the year, he made some threatening noises, but lately he's back to missing the putts again. If he gets his game straightened out, he could be a problem. He certainly has the right kind of head for it.
DAVIS LOVE III - Oh, what an enigma. For four or five years he was the ultimate professional when it came to the majors. Last year he took a back seat. This year he looked suspiciously like a contender again with three or four great tournaments on the West Coast, but now it's the same old thing - injuries. This time it's a problem neck. He has had to withdraw from three tournaments, and there's not much time get the rust out.
HAL SUTTON - The real thing. Unfortunately, at 43, he picks up dings to his body and they can linger on. He's not a great putter, but at Southern Hills it's not how many 30-footers you make, it's how many 5-6 footers. He doesn't seem intimidated by Woods, though he certainly respects him. A U.S. Open trophy certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility.
ERNIE ELS - The big fella just isn't gonna make it this time. He tried to make a swing change right before he teed it up in the Byron Nelson, and of course it didn't work. It's a little too late to expect him to catch a wave this time.
JESPER PARNEVIK - Another one that won't be intimidated by the Feline Factor. He has the right kind of game for a course like Southern Hills. His record hasn't been particularly sparkling of late, but he has a knack of heating up at the most unexpected times.
DAVID DUVAL - This guy seems to find it at the majors every time. He is injured pretty often, but if he can swing a club, he'll probably finish in the top-10 - he has the past three years at the Open, you know.
COLIN MONTGOMERIE - It looks like the years ran out on him. During the '90s, it seemed so certain that one day he would win one of these things. But the last two or three years have not been kind to him as far as the majors are concerned. And it doesn't look like this year will be much different.
TOM LEHMAN - Has the right attitude, but looks again like a top-10er without much hope of being a top one. He has won only once since 1996, two if you're counting Loch Lomond in Scotland in 1997. He's 42 now, and while that doesn't mean as much in this Open, he never has been the same golfer since he separated a shoulder at the British Open in 1998.
David Toms, Joe Durant, Jim Furyk, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn all rate a mention. Each of them has played well at some time the past two seasons, though it would frankly be a shock if any of them won.
It would frankly be a shock if anyone won but Tiger, as a fact. But you can dream, as well as a whole bunch of golfers. And Sergio, who did beat a sick Tiger last year in 18 holes of match play in prime time, still is young enough to dream.