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U.S. Open Preview: Winged Foot

While the Master's will always be my favorite golf tournament, the US Open is not far behind. Over a hundred and fifty golfers will tee it up on Thursday in Mamoreneck, NY at the famed Winged Foot Golf Club for a shot at our national title.

The Open is a truly unique golf tournament. Unlike any other professional sport, anyone has a legitimate chance to qualify and win the national championship. Joining the regular tour players this week will be over seventy golfers whose exceptional play qualified them for the US Open. Anyone with a handicap index of 1.4 or lower is eligible. This year there were over nine thousand entries and among them were Michelle Wie and Tadd Fujikawa. You have probably heard about Wie by now. She is the sixteen year old girl who has been in the limelight for over two years. She failed to become the first female ever to qualify for the Open fading late. You have probably not heard about Fujikawa. He -did- manage to qualify for the Open despite being just over five feet tall and just 15 years old. Tadd first picked up a golf club just four years ago and will compete this week against the best players in the world. While the media longed for another chance to put Wie on the screen, they may have found an even more impressive story in Fujikawa.

For those of us who grew up playing golf with our dads, the US Open holds a special place in our hearts. This year, like in many others, the champion will likely be crowned on Father's Day. I was lucky enough to attend the 2002 US Open at Bethpage outside New York City and watch my favorite golfer, Tiger Woods, triumph once again. If that wasn't special enough, I got to walk the course on Saturday and on Father's Day with my dad. I remember walking up the right side of number 18 as Tiger putted out smiling from ear to ear. There is no place I would have rather been.

I'm sure BON golf addict have their own memories but here are a few more of mine: watching Tom Kite wait in 1992 at Pebble Beach to see if his score would hold up; marveling at the fairway wood (real wood) that Corey Pavin spanked up the hill at 18 at Shinnecock in 1995; and oddly I can't forget watching the playoff between Retief Goosen and former Longhorn Mark Brooks from my summer dorm room in 2001 by hitting refresh on my laptop.

Winged Foot: The Course
The USGA has once again set up a beast of a course. Don't be surprised to see the winning score over par. Winged Foot has played host to the US Open on four previous occasions. Bobby Jones won at Winged Foot in 1929, Billy Casper won in 1959, Hale Irwin survived with a winning score of +7 in 1974, and Fuzzy Zoeller stomped Greg Norman in a playoff in 1984. The last major championship played at Winged Foot was the 1997 PGA Championship. Davis Love III ran away from Justin Leonard on Sunday to capture his lone major championship. The fondest memory for golf fans was the rainbow spanning the 18th green as Love putted out.

This year the course will play a stiff 7,264 yards and to a par of 70. There will be just a single par 5 on each side. Some find US Open setups maniacal, whimsical, and bordering on unfair. Others see the thick rough, concrete greens, and tricky pin placements as a true test of golf. I find myself in the latter group. I want to see the pros struggle to find the greens as I do. I want there to be a penalty for blowing a drive wide right or left. Good shots should be rewarded and bad ones should be harshly penalized. A US Open set up does just that. Players are forced to think their way around the course. They must place their drives on the correct side of the fairway, and it is imperative approach shots are left underneath the hole. A champion must be not only physically talented but mentally tough and probably a little lucky as well.

The 9th hole at Winged Foot will play the toughest this week. The 9th is the longest par 4 in US Open history at 514 yards. Winged Foot also features the second longest par 5 in US Open history with the 640 yard 12th. Without a significant wind, the players will face a true three shot par 5.

The Favorites
Golf's Big 5 immediately spring to mind with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson topping the list. Even though Woods hasn't played since the Master's, he is still a favorite. Woods already owns two US Open titles. He will be intensely focused on capturing his third for his father who recently passed away. Even BON can't forget Phil. Somehow Mickelson has captured the last two major championships. I love Tiger. I can't stand Phil. A recent article in Sports Illustrated said it best:

There has always been a pronounced schism in the golf world; you are either a Phil fan or a Tiger fan. Mickelson's base seems to be mostly soccer moms and couch potatoes -- casual fans who have been charmed by his goofy perma-grin and Mayberry-inflected image and who appreciate his aggressive style, or what's left of it. To them the cold perfectionist Woods is little more than a flesh-and-blood Iron Byron. Tiger's crowd skews toward alpha males and single-digit handicappers -- hard-core fans who can wax about the evolution of his swing and are not put off by his liberal on-course use of the f word. In their eyes Mickelson is a loafer who wasted more than a decade coasting on his prodigious talent and whose aw-shucks act is phony to the point of inducing mild nausea. (Include GQ in the Woods camp; this year the magazine had Mickelson No. 8 on its Ten Most Hated Athletes list.)

Other favorites must include Vijay Singh who won last week, Jim Furyk who won the Open in 2003, Retief Goosen who has two US Open championships but has not played well lately, and Chad Campbell who is still looking for his first major title. No European has won the US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 but the top contenders this year are David Howell, Luke Donald, and Carl Petterson. A list of past US Open champions reads like a who's who of golf. A fluke winner like Steven Jones in 1996 is unlikely.

BON's Pick
If Phil wins again, I may have to go into hiding. So, picking him is simply out of the question. I would like to pick a sleeper like Justin Leonard or Davis Love or a European like Darren Clarke but I can't. Those just don't make sense. Singh would be safe pick. Too boring though. Michael Campbell hasn't been playing well enough to repeat. Phil's fifteen minutes have long passed. So, no surprise here: Tiger Woods. Tiger won the last time the US Open was near NYC even though the fans were inexplicably rooting for Mickelson. The story line is too great to ignore. Woods captures a third US Open championship for Earl.