No One Favorite at US Open

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What does it take to win the U.S. Open? The easiest answer ' without getting into patience, fortitude and good fortune ' is: fairways and greens.
 
Padraig Harrington may have summed it up best when he said at last years U.S. Open: You want to be sort of like a machine, just hit it down the fairway, hit it on the green you want to be the most boring golfer around this week.
 
If boring is an act of straight-forward repetitiveness, then Tiger Woods, right now, is a three-ring circus of fun.
 
Hes left more often than right; and almost seems to be right more often than straight. He hit an average of 42.9 percent of his fairways at the Wachovia Championship and tied for 67th in driving accuracy that week ' only 72 players made the cut.
 
And he was even worse the following week at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, where he hit only 41 percent for the week.
 
Consequently, he was also near the bottom of the barrel in his last two starts in hitting greens in regulation. Yet, thanks to his putter, he was able to contend, finishing in the top 4 on both occasions.
 
But a faithful putter will be hard pressed to makeup for his driving sins at Shinnecock.
 
Therefore, for the first time since he turned professional, Woods may not be the betting favorite in a major championship.
 
In fact, while there has to be an odds-on favorite, there may not be a single individual who truly stands head-and-shoulders above the field as the man to beat.
 
Instead, there is a group ' serious contenders who deserve serious consideration. Of course, there are still four PGA Tour events leading up to the U.S. Open, meaning things can certainly change and one man can step to the forefront ' or others (Davis Love, Chad Campbell and Darren Clarke come to mind) could add their names to this list.
 
But for now, these are the men to beat (in no particular order). And it doesn't even include last year's champion, Jim Furyk, who is unable to defend following wrist surgery in March.
 
Vijay Singh
Singh leads the tour this year in earnings and wins. Another victory prior to Shinnecock may not move him to No. 1 in the world rankings, but it will likely make him the primary target at the Open.
 
Singh has five career top-10s in this event, with his best finish a tie for third at Pinehurst in 1999. He shared the 36-hole lead with Furyk a year ago at Olympia Fields. Furyk shot 67-72 on the weekend to win; Singh shot 72-78 to tie for 20th.
 
But what may prove the biggest factor in making Iron Man the iron-clad favorite is his ability to hit his irons. Singh leads the tour in greens hit in regulation ' a most telling statistic. Five of the last seven U.S. Open winners led the tournament in greens hit in regulation.
 
Phil Mickelson
Mickelson always said he wasnt trying to win one major, he was trying to win multiple majors. And that one major would lead to many. Now that he has discarded the major-sized monkey from his back, he feels ready to fulfill his prophecy.
 
I'm looking forward to the U.S. Open this year, he said last week at the Byron Nelson. It's not because I won't have to answer the question of a guy who's never won a major. It's because I have a lot of confidence now, a lot of belief that I can break through and win the big tournaments.
 
Despite missing the cut at the Nelson ' just his second finish outside the top 10 all season, he has a lot of positive Open vibes, particularly in the Empire State.
 
He has twice finished runner-up in this event, including an emotionally charged rock-and-roll-type performance at Bethpage in 2002. He also finished tied for fourth in 1995, the last time the Open visited Shinnecock.
 
Tiger Woods
Hes close. Or so he repeatedly says. Closer than most men who hit only three of 14 fairways in the final round of an event, anyway.
 
If he continues to misfire he could miss the cut at the Open, where he hasnt finished outside the top 20 since he was an amateur. But he has four weeks to piece his long game together.
 
The short game is intact. Hes been scrambling like a working mom of four, and making it look routine. For someone of his unique ability, three extra fairways hit a round could lead to a third Open title -- and his first major since the 2002 Open.
 
I have one more tournament, Memorial, and hopefully my game will be ready for the U.S. Open, he said after missing out on a playoff at the Byron Nelson by a stroke.
 
It is close. It is close.
 
Ernie Els
Els is a two-time Open champion (1994, 97) and is the third-ranked player in the world, so he is always among the favored group.
 
Were it not for Mickelson ' or perhaps destiny ' he would be the reigning Masters champion. Since that defeat, devastating as it may have been, hes tied for third at the Heritage and tied for seventh in Dallas.
 
This years Sony Open champion will need that energy reserve as he is currently in the first third of a six-week stretch of golf. It started at the Nelson and will conclude at the Open. In between he will play twice on the European Tour (Deutsche Bank-SAP Open and Volvo PGA) and twice on the PGA Tour (Memorial and Buick Classic).
 
Burnout may be a cause for concern, but the Long Island venue may prove more troubling. Els has missed only two cuts in the Open: 1995 and 99. The defending champion going into Shinnecock in 95, Els missed the cut by a shot.
 
I never really felt comfortable on that course, he said. But Im looking forward to (returning). I can only play better, I believe.
 
Mike Weir
Resolved from the pressure of having a major title to defend, Weir should be far more relaxed than he was at Augusta, where he missed the cut.
 
Weir tied for third a year ago at Olympia Fields, easily his best finish in five career Open starts.
 
Since defending his Nissan Open crown in February, Weir has yet to notch another top 10. Still, hes a steady driver of the ball (49th on tour in driving accuracy), is consistent with his irons (43rd on tour) and is proficient with his putter (5th in putts per greens hit in regulation).
 
And nothing beats major experience.
 
Sergio Garcia
A week ago he would have been considered more pretender than contender. But that was a week ago. Now hes added some substance to his style.
 
Garcias revamped swing was tried in Dallas and appears true. He led the Byron Nelson field in greens hit in regulation ' and we know how important that statistic is in a U.S. Open, tied for sixth in driving accuracy and tied for 26th in putting.
 
He hit all 18 greens in regulation in the third round, and missed only one fairway that day. He struggled some on Sunday, but did what was necessary to win for the first time on tour in over two years.
 
'His swing is certainly going to hold up in major championships now,' Els said of Garcia. 'I think you'll see the real Sergio come through in the next couple of years.'
 
Garcia has played well in past Opens, tying for 12th in 2001 and finishing fourth in 2002. His appearance at Bethpage two years ago, however, was marred by controversy (he accused the USGA of showing favoritism towards Woods) and confrontation (he was the victim of verbal abuse from spectators and reacted with a one-finger salute on one occasion).
 
But Shinnecock is not Bethpage. The inebriated and the profane should be more of a minority.
 
Its not the venue, but the tournament itself that could doom Garcia. No European has won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But that's another story for another time.
 
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