Contenders and Pretenders

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All eyes will be focused on Tiger Woods, who with a victory this week would become the first player in 30 years to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same season. Jack Nicklaus was the last in 1972, but the 'Golden Bear' went on to have his grand slam hopes extinguished when Lee Trevino beat him by one shot in that year's British Open at Muirfield.
 
Woods completed a slam of sorts by winning the last three majors of 2000 (U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship) before reeling in the second of his three Masters titles in 2001. An astounding accomplishment, but to be truly Grand most agree the four majors have to be won in the same calendar year.
 
Woods' quest for an unprecedented fifth straight major came to a screeching halt at last year's U.S. Open at Southern Hills, where he struggled to a 4-over 74 in the opening round and wound up tied for 12th. That disappointment began a streak of five consecutive finishes outside the top 10 for the world's top-ranked player, the longest such slump of his career.
 
Now, with six top-10s in just 10 starts in 2002, including wins at Bay Hill and Augusta (plus a European Tour victory in Germany), Woods is hitting his stride and looking to wrest the U.S. Open trophy from the arms of defending champion Retief Goosen.
 
Woods' game would seem to suit Bethpage. He's certainly long enough to have a big advantage on a number of the elevated greens at the Black, particularly the 15th.
 
However, a look at the stats will show that putting has been Woods' nemesis since the end of his dominating 2000 season. Ranked second on the PGA Tour in putting average two years ago, Woods dropped all the way to 102nd in 2001 and has since fallen even further, to 135th.
 
Since the Black is a par-70, Woods has two less par-5s to birdie or possibly even eagle. The fact is, par-70 courses have accounted for his four worst finishes in the U.S. Open and his three worst finishes in the PGA Championship. Not surprisingly, Woods captured a pair of PGAs and all three of his Masters titles on par-72 layouts, which have four par-5s.
 
Woods did finish third at the 1999 U.S. Open, which was held at the par-70 Pinehurst No. 2.
 
Phil Mickelson, No. 2 in the world behind Woods, earned his 20th career victory, and with it a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour, in his first start of the season at the Bob Hope Classic. He's collected six top-10s since, including four third-place finishes in a five-week span. One of those thirds came at the Masters, giving him 15 top-10s in the majors without a victory.
 
The lefthander is due, to say the least. But even though he's been ranked high in putting over the last several years, Mickelson's stroke tends to let him down at important times in big events. On the other hand, sometimes it's his complete confidence in his shotmaking ability that gets him into trouble when he tries to pull off the impossible (see the par-5 16th at Bay Hill in March).
 
Two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els and his South African counterpart Goosen are third and fourth in the World Ranking, respectively. Each have posted multiple victories around the globe this season and are steely competitors with a great chance to add to their U.S. Open win totals.
 
Last year at Southern Hills, Goosen opened with a 66 and held at least a share of the lead the rest of the way in winning his first major championship. But the rest of the way included an 18-hole playoff with Mark Brooks necessitated by a comedy of putting errors on the final green of regulation.
 
Brooks, playing in the second-to-last group, three-putted the 18th to slip one shot back of Goosen, then headed to the clubhouse to clean out his locker. Goosen then hit a brilliant approach shot to 12 feet but ran his birdie effort two feet by the hole. He misread the short par try and bogeyed, forcing the Monday finish. Moments earlier Stewart Cink, who was in the final pairing with Goosen, double-bogeyed the 18th when he misfired on a shorter putt than Goosen's. Had he made the virtual tap-in, Cink would have been part of the playoff the next day.
 
Brooks, who won his seventh career title at the 1996 PGA Championship after a sudden-death playoff with Kenny Perry, came into last year's U.S. Open having posted only 11 top-10 finishes on tour in the five years since his major triumph. He was an unlikely contender, to say the least, but his success does raise the possibility that another former major winner who's fallen on tough times could catch lightning in a bottle this week at Bethpage.
 
Steve Jones, whose victory at Oakland Hills in 1996 saw him become the last player to capture the U.S. Open title after advancing through sectional qualifying, followed with three regular tour wins over the next two seasons. But he was hampered by injuries in 1999 and his highest position on the money list the last three years was 87th in 2000. Corey Pavin, the 1995 Open champion the last time New York hosted the event, at Shinnecock Hills, won the Colonial the following season but has finished among the top-10 in tournaments just eight times since.
 
Neither Jones nor Pavin would seem to have the game to be factors this week, although anyone would have said the same thing about Brooks last year. Correctly choosing a dark horse of his magnitude is almost impossible, so the next best thing is to pick a player who goes against a long-time trend.
 
While no European player has come out on top at a U.S. Open since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Spain's Sergio Garcia are both solid choices to be the next.
 
Montgomerie, who finished atop the European Tour Order of Merit seven straight years from 1993-99, is coming off four straight top-four results on his home circuit - including a pair of runner-ups - despite suffering from back problems. He's never missed a U.S. Open cut and has tallied a trio of top-three finishes. Two were second-place showings, with Monty losing to Els both times - in a playoff at Oakmont in 1994 and by one shot at Congressional in 1997.
 
Monty's never won an event in the United States, however, and he's often been the target of the rowdier segment of American golf galleries, most notably during the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline. His hecklers know they can easily get to him, so the Scot will probably have to retract his infamous 'rabbit ears' if he hopes to survive the tough New York fans.
 
That leaves 'El Nio.' Garcia, who won the first of his three PGA Tour titles just over a year ago at the Colonial, was right in the mix at last year's U.S. Open, just one stroke back after three rounds. But he struggled on the final day, turning in a 77 to tie for 12th.
 
Flash forward to '02, and the young Spaniard is in the midst of a scoring slump. Only five of his last 32 PGA Tour rounds have been in the 60s and last month he missed back-to-back cuts in Texas, the second when he was defending his breakthrough title at the Colonial. He showed signs of turning it around last week at the Buick Classic, where he posted four rounds of par or better.
 
Like most players, Garcia's U.S. Open hopes rest with his driver and his putter. He's long (currently fifth in driving distance with 291.3-yard average) and straight (38th in driving accuracy with 71% of fairways hit) with the big stick, but his numbers on the greens have been a disappointment in '02.
 
Fourth on tour in total putting just two seasons ago, Garcia backed up to the mid-20s in those stats in 2001. Not a huge drop-off, but this year he's 73rd in putting average and 82nd in putts per round.
 
Still, Garcia's an elite player who puts his ball long in the fairway and is creative when faced with tough situations. Look for Woods and Garcia to be in the final pairing come Sunday (and maybe Monday if the scoring is really low and tight) when the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, the USGA's generous gift to public golf, comes to a close.