Originally Published: June 13, 2010

Dissecting all the U.S. Open angles

Sobel By Jason Sobel
ESPN.com
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The 2010 major championship tour of some of the world's greatest golf courses continues this week, as Pebble Beach follows Augusta National in the rotation before the final two at St. Andrews and Whistling Straits.

With apologies to a current blockbuster, this is golf's version of "The A-Team."

Heading into the U.S. Open, plenty of questions remain to be answered. This preview edition of the Weekly 18 begins with some of those queries.

1. Open-ended questions

Will the real Tiger Woods please stand up?

After a lengthy self-imposed absence for personal reasons, Woods finished T-4 at the Masters. That was good. He followed with an MC at the Quail Hollow Championship and a WD at the Players. Those were bad. And in his most recent appearance, he finished in a share of 19th at the Memorial Tournament. That was … OK?

Truth is, we don't really know what to expect from Woods right now -- one of the very few times during his career that such a claim can be made.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWhich recent version of Tiger Woods will show up at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open?

As at Quail Hollow, he might play poorly and MC once again. Or as he did 10 years ago, he might completely get into the zone and win it all. (But not by 15. That was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.) Anyone who says they know where TW will finish is purely guessing -- and it's not a very educated guess, either.

I'll make a guess, too: Woods will continue improving, but his game right now isn't where it needs to be in order to win this tournament. He'll be playing Sunday and might even find his name on the leaderboard, but it's tough to imagine Tiger clutching the trophy when it's all over.

Who is the pre-tournament favorite?

The odds differ based on the bookmaker, but as of this writing it appears the majority enlist Woods as a 6-to-1 favorite, with Phil Mickelson just behind at 7-to-1.

For years I've been saying that Woods is the prohibitive favorite in every tournament he plays. Despite his recent middling play, I can't veer from that take, though you can certainly remove the word "prohibitive" as a precursor.

Consider it like this: If Woods is 1A, then Mickelson is 1B going into the week. Not sure I'd call 'em co-favorites, but the oddsmakers have them neck and neck right now.

And no, that doesn't contrast my previous argument that Woods will find it difficult to win this week. Enlisting a pre-tournament favorite and picking an eventual winner are two very different things, and you can often place two different players into those spots.

Will another Hall of Famer win at Pebble?

This venue has hosted the U.S. Open on four previous occasions. Three of those winners -- Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tom Watson (1982) and Tom Kite (1992) -- are in the HOF, while the other -- Woods (2000) -- is a lock for induction the day he becomes eligible.

Of the other U.S. Open champions since Woods' victory at Pebble a decade ago (he also won in 2002 and '08), only Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk are knocking on that HOF door right now.

Four of the last five winners -- Lucas Glover, Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy and Michael Campbell -- were elite players at the time of their victories, but hardly superstars when they claimed that first major win.

It's easy to claim that a fifth consecutive no-doubt-about-it HOFer will reign once again at Pebble, but really, there aren't too many options from which to choose. It's much more likely that a player of the Glover-Cabrera-Ogilvy-Campbell ilk -- which is to say, a very good player who isn't yet a superstar -- will prevail.

Is there another Lucas Glover-type story out there?

One year ago, Glover reached the U.S. Open through sectional qualifying, then continued that momentum at Bethpage Black, beating a waterlogged field for the victory.

Before that win, he was largely known as a career underachiever -- a player with loads of talent who owned just a single title in six years on the PGA Tour.

There are many others who fit this description, from Luke Donald (who just recently won his first worldwide title since 2006) to Hunter Mahan (who has played on each of the last three Ryder/Presidents Cup teams despite just two wins). It's certainly well within the realm of possibility for another up-and-comer to raise his profile with a win at Pebble Beach. Just like Glover.

Three up

2. Phil Mickelson

How difficult would it be for a golfer to win the in-season Grand Slam? Consider this: Since the inception of the current major championship format, only six times has the same player won the first two legs.

They are Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951, '53), Arnold Palmer (1960), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Tiger Woods (2002).

Not a shabby group, eh?

Of course, with the green jacket already hanging in his closet -- when he's not wearing it to Krispy Kreme, that is -- Mickelson is the lone player who can keep his Slam hopes alive at Pebble Beach.

It's a site where he's had success in the past, winning three times at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. In fact, it's a state where he's had plenty of success. Overall, a dozen of Mickelson's 38 career victories have come in his native California.

Of course, that doesn't include any of his four major titles. You know Phil would love to win a big one in his home state, but after this week he'll have only the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club before 2017 at the earliest.

Let's not give him the W just yet, though.

Mickelson decided to skip the St. Jude Classic -- a rare occurrence for him in the week before a major. In fact, since 2005, he has competed in 20 majors and on only four occasions failed to compete the week before. The chart to the left shows how he fared in each instance.

Sense a pattern here? There's a tangible reason Mickelson prefers to play rather than practice before majors.

That doesn't mean his decision to gear his game for Pebble as opposed to teeing it up in Memphis will result in a fifth straight disappointing finish, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind.

3. The 40-year-old versions

Aging is a part of life that no amount of major championship trophies can reverse. There will always be a younger, brasher, hipper generation pushing the older folks closer to the front-porch rocking chair -- or at least the senior circuit.

And yet, the 40-year-old version is hardly something to laugh about in golf. In fact, the game's three hottest players so far this season are each already there or will be shortly. Allow them to serve as the latest and possibly greatest examples that the number on a player's scorecard isn't dependent upon the one shown on a birth certificate.

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4. Lucas Glover

You remember Glover, right? He's the guy on last year's leaderboard who wasn't the sentimental choice (Phil Mickelson), the out-of-nowhere option (David Duval) or even the struggling pro (Ricky Barnes). Instead, he's just the guy who won.

In the 51 weeks since his romp through the waterlogged Bethpage Black, the reigning champion has returned to, well, being Lucas Glover.

Don't get me wrong. That's not such a bad thing.

In 25 starts since his career-defining victory, Glover has posted five top-10s. Most notably, there was a fifth-place finish at last year's PGA Championship and a solo third at last month's Players Championship. That would be a pair of top-5s in two of the four biggest tournaments since then -- strong results for any top player.

While contrarians might correctly point out that Glover doesn't own another official W since that time, he did claim the PGA Grand Slam of Golf title over fellow major champions Angel Cabrera, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang, which is a nifty little feather in his cap.

Heading into his title defense at Pebble Beach, Glover now knows what it takes to be successful at this event, and hopes to carry over a little momentum from last year.

"At a major, any tough event, you have got to realize that every shot is very important," he said. "And if you can save a shot or two a round, if you are in trouble, you are doing yourself a big favor, because there's not that many birdies to be had, especially at a U.S. Open."

No, Glover might not have become an overnight superstar thanks to last year's win, but he's still a very good -- and even underrated -- player. Maybe if he becomes the first back-to-back winner since Curtis Strange in 1988-89, people will start to take notice.

Three down

5. Michael Campbell

In the five years since his U.S. Open victory, Campbell has suffered multiple injuries and completely lost his swing -- so much so that he has become an afterthought among the game's elite, dropping from 23rd after that week at Pinehurst in 2005 to his current spot at … wait for it … 693rd place.

Um, happy anniversary?

It's a shame for Cambo that rather than celebrate his wooden anniversary -- to use the traditional marital gift -- he's trying to figure out his woods … not to mention his irons, wedges and putter, too.

How bad has it gotten? In eight combined starts on the PGA and European tours this season, Campbell has yet to make a cut. Even worse, in 15 total rounds his best score is 74, with nearly half in the 80s.

At some point this week, when the Kiwi is unfortunately lingering near the bottom of the leaderboard at Pebble, take a minute to remember his victory in 2005, when he held off Tiger Woods by a few strokes to claim the title.

It really wasn't that long ago. And there's always a chance that Campbell can return to such lofty heights at some point.

Just ask him.

I recently happened to be reading through the transcript of Campbell's post-round interview session from that day in Pinehurst. At one point, he was asked to offer advice for David Duval, who lost his game in much the same way Cambo has now lost his.

"Have faith, believe in yourself," he said. "Dave Duval is one of the best players I have ever played with in recent times. He is going through a hard time, that's all, but he will be back. Dave Duval will be back, definitely."

Duval is still struggling, but he came back to finish in a share of second place at last year's Open. Here's hoping Campbell is taking a little of his own advice right now.

6. David Duval

The last time Duval competed in the U.S. Open, he finished in a share of second place. The last time he competed at Pebble Beach, he also finished in a share of second place.

So it stands to reason that the 13-time PGA Tour champion should be among the favorites with the tournament returning to this site, right?

Uh, not exactly.

In one of the strangest stats in golf, those two runner-up finishes -- at last year's Open and this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- stand as the only top-10 results for Duval since late in the 2002 season. It's a period that spans 135 total appearances and more than seven full years.

What should we expect from Double-D this week? Your guess is as good as mine.

He hasn't exactly been lighting it up recently, with just three made cuts and a best finish of T-30 in his last 10 starts. Then again, he similarly wasn't setting the golf world ablaze before either of those previous title contentions, either.

Duval's stats show a player whose long game (154th in driving accuracy) and ball-striking (155th in greens in regulation) are below average, and short game is mysteriously incalculable (26th in putting average, but 99th in putts per round).

If there's a bright side entering this week, it's that he tends to be more competitive in the bigger events and also fares better when par is a good score, rather than having to post a barrage of birdies.

It's certainly possible that Duval could contend once again this week, though it may be improbable. The bigger question is this: If he does play well once again, how will he follow up this time?

7. The influence of the World Cup

Is it possible that the world's biggest soccer tournament can affect one of the world's biggest golf tournaments?

I investigated and found that it's possible … but not probable.

With 77 international players representing 21 countries currently owning full-time PGA Tour membership, there had to be some who share in this other global pastime -- enough that it could affect their regularly scheduled regimens.

Like a mouse trying to sniff out that hidden piece of cheese, I soldiered on in my pursuit of those with a love for the "beautiful game."

It wasn't until I spoke with Geoff Ogilvy, though, that I found a player whose preparation was clearly influenced by that "other" tournament -- and not in the way you might think.

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Three wishes

8. I wish there were consistency with the USGA's special exemptions.

As the governing body residing over the U.S. Open, the USGA -- much like the folks at Augusta National in advance of the Masters -- may invite anyone they'd like to compete in the championship.

This year, the organization granted two special exemptions. The first one went to Tom Watson. A longtime Hall of Famer who won the event at Pebble Beach in 1982 and has in the past year contended at the Open Championship and the Masters, he was as much of a lock as there could be; in fact, had the USGA failed to invite Watson, officials likely would have incurred the wrath of fans.

"I was very excited to get it, because of the history that I've had at Pebble Beach," Watson said. "It's my favorite course in the world. I have a long history, starting back in 1967 when I first started playing the golf course."

The other exemption went to fellow Hall of Fame inductee Vijay Singh. From 1992 through just a few weeks ago, the Big Fijian was inside the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking every single week. And though he's been slowed by recent injuries, when Singh is on his game, he can still contend at this type of event.

"I'm so happy that they gave it to me," Singh said. "I really am glad. I thanked them already. I would have been disappointed."

Again, tough to criticize this exemption, considering his credentials. Singh has competed in every major championship dating back to 1994, seven times placing within the top-10 at the U.S. Open.

But … he's never won.

And that's what makes it so puzzling that Vijay received a spot in the field while past champion Tom Kite was forced to qualify.

Here's where the lack of consistency comes into play. Like Watson, Kite is 60 years old. Like Watson, his lone U.S. Open title came at Pebble Beach. Like Watson, his final-round chip-in remains one of the most iconic and lasting images from this championship over the past few decades.

Unlike Watson, however, Kite was forced to play a sectional qualifier in Littleton, Colo., last Monday, posting scores of 69-68 to miss a spot in the field by a single stroke.

"You could tell he was disappointed," said local club professional Jason Preeo, who earned one of the two spots available at the qualifier. "He came up and shook my hand and said congratulations. But you almost feel bad for taking the spot."

He shouldn't have to. If the USGA sees fit to reward Watson with a place in the field, it should extend the same invitation to Kite. That exemption shouldn't come at the expense of Singh, but hey, this is the USGA's tournament and its officials can do as they please. Here's guessing an invitation to Kite would have pleased the masses, too.

9. I wish the U.S. Open would lose its stigma of being "unfair."

Difficult? Yes. Every player understands going into the week that the U.S. Open is going to be the year's toughest test of golf.

Unfair? Hardly.

Those who constantly cry about poor course setups from the USGA are clearly stuck in 2004, when a few burned-out greens at Shinnecock Hills were nearly unplayable.

Since then, however, players have been mostly complimentary about the setups. That's thanks largely to Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, who has been the main man in charge since 2006.

Perhaps his biggest strength is not setting up the venue to be as difficult as possible, but rather borrowing a page from the R&A guidelines, which state that the governing body should have the course play as it wants and let Mother Nature determine scoring.

"When you get a course that's firm and fast and it gets windy, that's when the great shot-making comes out," Davis said last month. "When you think who is the best shot-makers, it's the greatest players. I think that's why Pebble always adds this great drama."

One other aspect will aid scoring, too. Before last year -- when wet conditions enabled players to aim for flagsticks more than usual -- only one U.S. Open since, ironically, 2004 had seen a winner finish under par for the week. That came in 2008, when Torrey Pines played to a par-71 -- the only non-par-70 since Pebble in 2000.

Well, though it normally plays to a par-72, the course will once again be a par-71 this week, which -- for those who care about such things -- should give players a total of four extra strokes in relation to par.

Really, though, the scoring doesn't matter. What matters is a good, fair, difficult championship setup -- and that's exactly what we should expect this week.

10. I wish casual fans would take notice of the "unknown" qualifiers who will compete in this week's field.

There is a scene in the film "Tin Cup" in which the fictitious yet realistic Roy McAvoy describes the U.S. Open as "not just the biggest golf tournament in the world -- the most democratic."

Asked to clarify, McAvoy delivers an impassioned speech that could serve as liner notes for the USGA's annual program.

"I mean, it's open," he says. "Anyone's got a shot at it. You just gotta get past a local and a sectional qualifier, and unlike Doral or Colonial or the AT&T, they can't keep you out. They can't ask you if you're a garbage man or a bean-picker or a driving-range pro whose check is signed by a stripper. You qualify, you're in."

The year's second major championship will always include players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but its lifeblood is these qualifiers, the dreamers who at any given moment can recite McAvoy's speech word for word.

Here are a dozen such stories of unknown players who will be teeing it up among the world's elite in this year's edition of the U.S. Open.

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Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

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