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Michael Silver
June 14, 2004
Everyone wants to see Tiger battle Phil, but parity will be the theme of the week at bare and beautiful Shinnecock Hills
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June 14, 2004

Wide Open

Everyone wants to see Tiger battle Phil, but parity will be the theme of the week at bare and beautiful Shinnecock Hills

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The U.S. Open winner will be the golfer who can deal with wind, is in top form, has experienced Open pressure, can cope with New York fans and has that intangible something it takes to win a major. Here's who could be on the leader board on Sunday.
—Gary Van Sickle









He's from Texas, for crissakes

Sharp. Came from behind at Bay Hill; a near miss at Colonial

Still learning. Missed cut in three of four Opens

Smiles a lot. (People like that)

Ballstriking is off the charts, but is putter up to major challenge?

Will definitely win the Open-someday


Euro tour vet can handle all climates

Two wins this year, plus heartbreaker at Augusta

Has won two Opens, but missed cut at Shinny in '95

Sorry, Ray- everyone really loves Ernie

Known for syrupy swing but has terrific short game too

With Tiger slumping-sorry, "close"-Ernie is a cofavorite


Creative type says, Let it blow

Done with swing fixes-Nelson was first Tour win in 28 months

Wilted in final-round duel with Tiger in '02

Locals haven't forgotten his, uh, hand gesture at Bethpage

Can make like Melina Mercouri on greens-Never on Sunday

Better prepared to win a big one than he was two years ago


He's from Ireland. Need we say more?

Excellent. Second in Germany after two top fives in U.S.

Three top 10s

Nicest guy on Euro tour, and "Irish" plays well on the East Coast

Cerebral-and slow-player who can be too smart for his own good

Always a top five threat in any major


Can scramble in any weather

Good. Solid 24th at power-packed Memorial

Yikes! This is his first Open

He's not on public's radar despite BellSouth win in April

Any guy who can putt this well is always dangerous

Needs more seasoning


Doesn't love it but can handle it

Seconds at Match Play and Honda but one top 20 since Augusta

Three-putted final green to miss '96 playoff; fourth in '95

Will New York fans focus on his rabbit ears or his '97 PGA win?

It's been seven long years since that '97 rainbow at Winged Foot

So much talent, yet only one major. Ultimate underachiever


No worries. It's that Texas thing

A fifth at Wachovia, ninth at Colonial in the last month

Short-hitter made surprising run at Tiger at Bethpage

Some love due for guy who caught own bunker shot at '03 Masters

Hasn't been much of a closer

Right Open style-all fairways and greens, all the time


Kryptonite to this high hitter

Seems to have recovered from Masters hangover

Fourth at Shinny during Wild Child phase in 1995

The Neo-Arnie, but has lost underdog appeal

Switch from power to control perfect for Open

Was best pro sans major; soon to be halfway to Grand Slam?


Likes it about as much as he likes media

Wins this year at Pebble Beach, Houston and New Orleans

Five top lOsin 10 starts

Nope. Had fan kicked out at Olympia Fields last year

Can a guy with a bellyputter really handle Open greens?

Plays better when Tiger's not around


Excelled in windy Memphis

He's hot, hot hot-blistered the FedEx field by six shots

Enough. Played in seven Opens; fifth at Olympia Fields

Nice guy, but New Yorkers won't recognize him

After LSU's BCS title, everything else is gravy for him

Straight off the tee, solid on the greens-profile of an Open champ


Canadian's right at home in a cold wind

Shaky. Cracked top 20 once since winning in L.A. in February

Chased winner Jim Furyk last year, finishing third

Yes, especially if they're Islanders fans

Streaky player who can get hot in a hurry

Like Furyk, he has the game and the grit to swipe an Open


No prob. Still No. 1 shotmaker

Big prob: Can't find the fairway

He's only won two of the last four

He's Tiger, da man! He'll always be the headliner

Like Nicklaus, seldom misses a putt that matters

Driver issues unresolved. Does cut streak (123 events) end here?

A buzz reverberated through the warm evening air last Thursday at Muirfield Village Golf Club as thousands of spectators watched the greatest player of his generation line up a 12-foot putt on the 18th green. With his artificial hip and cranky back, 64-year-old Jack Nicklaus can no longer squat, so he bent his left knee and crouched awkwardly behind the ball. After determining the break, Nicklaus stood, moved over the ball and settled into his familiar stance, holding the pose for what seemed like an eternity as the rapt gallery at the Memorial Tournament held its collective breath.

Finally he struck the ball, and there, on the Dublin, Ohio, course that he designed, time stood still for the Golden Bear. The putt rolled in, and it might as well have been 1972 again. The ensuing roar drowned out the buzz of the millions of cicadas that flitted through the air like a scene from a Bugs Gone Wild video. Brushing away a few meaty insects, Nicklaus walked off the green and through a gantlet of admirers. "One more year!" pleaded a fan as Nicklaus, his head lowered, kept walking to the scorer's hut, where he signed for his two-over-par 74.

Two days earlier, in the strongest terms yet, Nicklaus had said that his playing career was over. And so two months after Arnold Palmer bid farewell to the Masters, the game once again was confronted with the loss of a legend. Such long-anticipated goodbyes may perplex those who don't follow golf—Arnie, after all, is 74 and had missed the cut at the Masters for the past 21 years—but the two departures come at a pivotal time for the game. A week before the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., it is uncertain whether pro golf is entering a new era of competitive excellence or headed toward a cicadalike period of dormancy.

This much is abundantly clear: With each passing Grand Slam event, Nicklaus's record of 18 victories in majors appears increasingly formidable. Two years ago at Bethpage State Park, only 60 miles west of Shinnecock Hills, Tiger Woods stomped the U.S. Open field for his seventh win in 11 majors and appeared destined to pass Nicklaus by decade's end. Since then Woods has gone 0 for 7 with only two top 10 finishes, and his perch atop the World Ranking looks as shaky as his once-vaunted swing.

When Woods was Microsoft and his competition other software brands, fans and media complained about the lack of worthy rivals. Now that Tiger has come back to the pack, three players—World No. 2 Vijay Singh of Fiji (two majors), third-ranked Ernie Els of South Africa (three) and, most enticing of all, fifth-ranked Californian Phil Mickelson (a huge one)—appear to be stepping forward to make a run at him, much as Lee Trevino and Tom Watson challenged Nicklaus in the 1970s and '80s.

In the wake of his sublime, breakthrough victory over Els at Augusta, Mickelson currently is the game's most compelling figure. Having shed his can't-win-the-big-one ball and chain, will Lefty begin his own Tigeresque streak at Shinnecock? Or will he go the way of former world No. 1 David Duval, who since winning his sole major, the 2001 British Open, has receded so far into the golfing netherworld that he has become as invisible as Dana Carvey?

As Masterly as Mickelson was at Augusta, his performance there should not be viewed as a guarantee of sustained success. Rich Beem's victory at the 2002 PGA Championship began an unprecedented streak of six consecutive first-time winners in majors—Mike Weir ('03 Masters), Jim Furyk ('03 U.S. Open), Ben Curtis ('03 British), Shaun Micheel ('03 PGA) and Mickelson. Of the six, Beem, Curtis and Micheel have the look of one-hit wonders. Call it the NFL-ization of the PGA Tour, with anyone capable of being the '03 Carolina Panthers. After all, on any given Sunday.... "It's wide-open," says veteran pro Tommy Armour III. "To me it's a beautiful thing. Golf is a fair game, where everybody starts every week at even par, and [the streak of first-time winners] simply shows that anything's possible."

Surprise winners add texture to the Tour and make for nice story lines, but too many fans still have a Tiger fetish. When Woods tees it up, television ratings are generally 50% higher than when he takes the week off. Over the last two years ratings are down nearly 20% even when Tiger is playing, which leads to the question: Is the game, like Woods, also going through something of a slump? Many parts of the country are overbuilt with courses, yet participation levels across the U.S. have not kept up with the building, and since 2000 the number of avid golfers—those who play at least 25 rounds a year—has declined 8%.

Anxiety about the state of the game could be eased by a Woods-Mickelson duel at Shinnecock Hills, but now, for the first time, there's a legitimate suspicion that the guy in the bloodred shirt can no longer get it done on the Sundays that matter most. Heart, creativity and exceptional putting have kept Woods near the top of the money list this year—he finished a shot out of a playoff twice and won the World Match Play in February—but he hasn't taken a stroke-play tournament since last October, and the fear factor that once gripped his chief competitors is long gone.

So, too, is Tiger's magic touch. Last year, after Mickelson claimed that Woods was playing with "inferior equipment," Woods's relative lack of length (he finished '03 11th in driving distance) was up for discussion. This year the issue is accuracy. Woods has been about as proficient off the tee as Shaq has been at the free throw line. In 2000, the year Tiger won nine Tour events, including the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA, Woods hit the fairway 71.2% of the time; so far this season he's been in the short grass on only 56.4% of his drives and is ranked 161st on Tour. That figure bodes ill on any U.S. Open layout, but particularly so at Shinnecock Hills, which recently completed a massive restoration. Thousands of trees and truckloads of hedges and underbrush were removed from the course, exposing players to the full effect of the fierce southerlies off Shinnecock Bay.

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