USGA delivers supersize groupings


SAN FRANCISCO – They may be the most compelling union of stars this side of Marvel’s Avengers.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson come together to do battle with The Olympic Club in the 112th U.S. Open beginning Thursday.

If you were casting golf’s Avengers, you would probably make Woods Iron Man, a genius in his business who proves more vulnerable than he first appears. Mickelson has to be Captain America, with his grass-roots appeal. Watson? It’s got to be Thor. Watson, after all, wields the most powerful hammer in golf.

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“If I was a golf fan, I would want to watch that group,” U.S. Open defending champion Rory McIlroy said.

Woods, Mickelson and Watson aren’t the only dynamic grouping arranged by the U.S. Golf Association this week.

Here’s the lowdown on this week’s best groupings with their tee times in Eastern Times:

The Avengers: Woods, Mickelson and Watson – Thursday, 10:33 a.m./Friday, 4:18 p.m.

The last time Mickelson teed it up with Woods, he shot 64 and won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February, with Woods stumbling home with a final-round 75.

These two have been paired together 30 times in PGA Tour events and sport 13-13-4 records trying to best each other. Momentum is Mickelson’s, though. Since teaming in the spring of ’07 with Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach, Mickelson has enjoyed the upper hand in pairings with Woods. He is 8-3-1 against Woods since then. Mickelson has topped Woods five of the last seven times they’ve been paired. Harmon acknowledges he shared some of Woods’ psychological tactics with Mickelson.

“Yeah, we’ve had a lot of discussion about that, but we’ll just keep that where it is,” Harmon said.

In majors, Woods sports a 4-2-2 advantage in pairings with Mickelson. Woods also has gone on to win three of the majors in which he was paired with Mickelson. Lefty has never won a major where he was paired with Woods at some point in the championship.

Watson doesn’t have the same major championship experience playing in pairings like these, but he won the Masters in April, the last major championship staged. Watson also likes the spotlight and big stages and chances to show off his shot-making gifts. He won’t be intimidated.

Her Majesty’s Not-So Secret Service: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood – Thursday, 4:29 p.m./Friday, 10:44 a.m.

The top three players in the world rankings will see if they can make it three consecutive U.S. Open titles for Great Britain.

“I’m not sure the queen will be watching, but who knows?” Donald said.

As the U.S. Open’s defending champion, McIlroy, 23, owns what Donald and Westwood desperately want. No, not their own bobblehead – which San Francisco Giants fans received when McIlroy threw out the first pitch Tuesday at AT&T Park; Donald and Westwood want a major championship.

At No. 1 in the world rankings, Donald’s lofty status won’t be fully embraced until he wins a major. A U.S. Open victory at age 34 would legitimize his place atop the game and bring him increased respect.

Donald is 0 for 35 in majors with six top-10 finishes. His best finish is a tie for third at the ’05 Masters and a tie for third at the ’06 PGA Championship. He has no top-10s in eight U.S. Open appearances.

Westwood, 39, is 0 for 56 in majors, but he has endured a lot of close calls. The world No. 3 has seven second- or third-place finishes in majors over the last four years. He tied for third in last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional.

“Majors are the only thing missing I haven’t won,” Westwood said.

Heartthrob Trio: Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Dustin Johnson – Thursday, 4:58 p.m./Friday, 11:43 a.m.

None has won a major, but they’ve won a lot of hearts with their games and looks.

Johnson, 27, is coming off a victory last weekend at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. Fowler, 23, won the Wells Fargo Championship last month. Ishikawa, 20, has won nine times in his young career on the Japanese PGA Tour, but he has yet to make a mark in the United States.

Putter Envy: Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson – Thursday, 11:32 a.m./Friday, 4:47 p.m.

If these guys finish 1-2-3 at The Olympic Club, you can probably kiss the long putter and belly putter goodbye.

All three of these players have performed impressively with the longer flatsticks. With the U.S. Golf Association studying the fairness of being able to anchor a putter to the body, this grouping almost feels like a grand experiment.

Scott battled out of a slump with the help of a long putter. Bradley won a major (PGA Championship) with a belly putter. Simpson made a run at PGA Tour Player of the Year with his belly putter.

South Korean Three Step: Y.E. Yang, K.J. Choi and K.T. Kim – Thursday, 11:28 a.m./Friday, 5:13 p.m.

This trio of gifted South Koreans will be pushing each other to give their native homeland its first U.S. Open title.

Yang broke through to win his country its first major in men’s golf in dramatic fashion knocking off Tiger Woods in the ’09 PGA Championship. Choi has won more than any other South Korean on the PGA Tour with eight titles and is the highest ranked South Korean in the world (No. 31). Kim is the second highest ranked player in the world from his country and played for the Internationals in the Presidents Cup last year.