This One Open to All

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OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- Tiger Woods will not win this years U.S. Open. Or so say a few brave prognosticators.
 
They say Olympia Fields straight-forward, relatively short demeanor will provide more competition than last year ' when he was the only man to finish under par, or in 2000 ' when he won by 15 strokes.
 
To that, Tiger agrees: The depth of challengers is greater than that of a year ago.
 
Reason No. 2 Tiger wont win ' so they say ' is because Woods hasnt won in his last ' Oh, my gosh! ' four whole starts. Hes encountered yet another slump. To that, Woods says: I dont think Ive ever been in a slumpEver since I came out of the womb and Ive started playing golf, Ive had a pretty good career.
 
En garde!
 
Woods enters the second major of the season trying to become the first player since Curtis Strange, in 1988 and 89 to successfully defend his Open title.
 
Hes won the Masters two years in a row, and done the same at the PGA Championship. He has only one British Open crown, and tied for 25th the following year. After winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he tied for 12th in 2001 at Southern Hills.
 
Olympia Fields has drawn comparisons to Southern Hills, where Retief Goosen won in an 18-hole playoff over Mark Brooks, and where Tiger tied for 12th.
 
It wasnt a beast like the Black Course, where several players complained it suited only one kind of player ' the kind who won.
 
This course is certainly more of an open venue ' as in open to all. At 7,190 yards on the card, it is just 24 yards shorter than the Black Course. But the North Course's length is spread throughout its entirety. There are no 260-yard required carries off the tee, and only one par-4 hole ' as opposed to four at Bethpage ' in excess of 475 yards.
 
It is because of the difference in venue ' not just between this year and the last, but from year-to-year over the years ' Woods says makes it so difficult to repeat as champion.
 
I think when you go to certain courses, they just fit your eye. And, all of a sudden, the next year its a completely different golf course, he explained.
 
This one seems to fit many an eye. Including that of Masters champion Mike Weir, who believes his game is more suited to succeed at a U.S. or British Open venue than at a lengthy Augusta National.
 
One of those two tournaments I thought would have been my first (major victory), he said.
 
What makes me feel that I can have a chance hereIm not going to be hitting 3-woods and 5-woods and 3-irons into every hole. Theres going to be a couple of holes like that, but for the most part its going to be a lot of mid-irons, which I think is the overall strength of my game.
 
Davis Love III is a bomber off the tee who enjoys his share of traditional set-ups ' like Winged Foot, where he won the 1997 PGA Championship. He said he also likes the novelty of playing a new layout.
 
Were thrilled to get a course like this, especially one that not anybody in this field really knows the golf course. So its a fresh, new thing for us, and its very exciting, he said.
 
This course lets more people in the game than Bethpage.
 
Phil Mickelson agreed: Out of the number of players in the field, I see a great number of players that could potentially win, he said.
 
Mickelson, of course, is still in search of that elusive first major championship ' he's now 0-43, if you're keeping count ' though he does have a pair of runner-up finishes in this event (1999 and 2002).
 
On the other hand, Ernie Els is a two-time Open champion. He prevailed in 1994 at Oakmont and again in 1997 at Congressional.
 
'It's absolutely the same,' Els said when asked how this course compared to the two on which he won. 'It's not playing all that long, but I think the way the USGA set it up this year it's very fair at the moment. The greens are difficult, very undulated. They've got a lot of break on them.'
 
Els got off to a torrid start this season, capturing the first two tournaments on the PGA Tour, and winning four times worldwide before March. But he hasnt won since, thanks in part to a nagging wrist injury.
 
This wrist is not an issue at all,' he said, but added that putting is. 'I don't feel very comfortable with the putter. But I spent a lot of time last week (practicing), and so it's just a matter of time, I think, before I start playing the way I want to play again.'
 
The same can be said for Woods. He is no stranger to success in the Chi-town area. He won the 1997 and 99 Western Opens at Cog Hill in Lemont. He also won the 99 PGA Championship at Medinah.
 
He got a sneak peek at Olympia Fields a couple of weeks ago when he played a practice round with Michael Jordan. By his caddies estimation, Woods managed to break par that day.
 
Monday, he got in another 18 holes, playing without haste with Hunter Mahan and Thomas Bjorn. Tuesday, he played another early-morning practice round in the rain with Mark OMeara, Jay Haas and Jay's son Bill..
 
Its a little different than what we played nine days ago. They cropped the rough last night. I dont think theyre going to cut it again for the rest of the week, so it should get up a little bit, he said.
 
But the greens are certainly faster than we were playing, and theyll get up to speed for the tournament. Other than that, everything is the same.
 
And, no need to worry, everything is on track with his game, despite having failed to crack the top-10 since his victory at Bay Hill in March.
 
My game is pretty good, I think. I hit the ball well in Germany, I just didnt make any putts ' and if you saw the greens, youd know why. Then I hit the ball well at Memorial, and I just had nine holes there Saturday afternoon that cost me my chance of winning the tournament, he said.
 
Im hitting the ball well this week so far. Im pleased at the signs that Im showing.
 
And, getting back to that perceived slump, Woods says much of what he does is hyperbolized ' on both extremes.
 
I think Ive had some success, but I think sometimes all of you can be a bit dramatic in your writing styles ' very flowery at times, he told the media. Ive hit some good shots, but they havent been that good. And then Ive hit some bad shots, and they havent been that bad.
 
Touch.
 
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