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Memorial looks toward U.S. Open

Seven out of the top 10 players in the world, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, are in the field this week at the Memorial, the last stop for many of them before the U.S. Open, which begins on June 13 at the Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia.

While it's an excellent tuneup for the people's open, the results at Jack Nicklaus' tournament are probably not the most accurate gauge of what's going to happen at Merion.

With its sectional qualifiers and self-consciously tough course setup, the U.S. Open is year after year the most unpredictable of the four majors. Not one player from the top 10 at Memorial last year went on to match that feat in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

Coming off of his fifth win at the Memorial, Tiger shot 8 over on the weekend at Olympic to finish in a tie for 21st. Then he won two weeks later at Congressional in the AT&T National.

Webb Simpson, the U.S. Open champion at Olympic, struggled mightily at the '12 Memorial, missing the cut by 6 shots. Michael Thompson was equally bad with rounds of 74 and 79 on the Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village course.

But on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco these two players were on the top of the leaderboard. They shared it with names like John Peterson and Casey Wittenberg, sectional qualifiers who didn't even own PGA Tour cards at the time. The week of the '12 Memorial, Wittenberg was playing in Raleigh, N.C., in the Web.com Tour's Rex Hospital Open, where he played 30 holes on Saturday to complete his second and third rounds, followed by 18 on Sunday. He then played 36 holes at the sectional qualifier in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., on Monday.

Peterson successfully Monday qualified for the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Then the next day he earned one of the U.S. Open spots available at the Springfield, Ohio, sectional.

Your next U.S. Open champion may not even be in the Memorial field. He could be a little-known player who emerges from one of the 11 U.S. sectional sites on June 3 or from the international qualifiers in England and Japan.

The U.S. Open is an exciting time in the game for fresh, unpredictable stories like Peterson and Wittenberg. Since Thompson finished in a tie for second at Olympic after making it through the sectionals, he has earned his first PGA Tour win in March at the Honda Classic over a field as deep as the one this week at Muirfield Village.

Last year at Olympic, most of us were all rightfully focused on what Tiger was going to do. Could he take his first major since the '08 Open at Torrey Pines? We're essentially in that same frame of mind in '13. Tiger has won four of his seven tour events on the year.

At Merion, he doesn't have to hit driver very often. So he can bat around the East course with his favorite stinger shot. There is little argument in the game that Tiger is the favorite to win at Merion.

There isn't a tasteless joke in the world that could distract him from winning his fourth U.S. Open. But a vital part of the allure of the Open is its habit of injecting narratives that unsettle the conventional script.

After missing two cuts in a row, Simpson was surprised to win at Olympic. Thompson, Peterson and Wittenberg played all week like men with nothing to lose. No one was going to notice, except their hometown newspapers and families, if they rose and then fell off the leaderboard.

The Memorial is a good time to pay homage to the 18-time major champion at his mini-version of the Masters. With this field, it's a smart bet that the Merion winner will be on the leaderboard here on Sunday. It will most likely be Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, who has his own share of distractions with the recent news that he has dumped his agent.

But as you look over all these great players for your fantasy picks or office pools for the U.S. Open, don't forget that your champion or top-10 performer may be somewhere on a practice range preparing for a sectional on Monday, or at the Mid-Atlantic Championship on the Web.com Tour, or slamming his trunk after badly missing the cut at the Memorial.

If Tiger has his way, he will gain his 79th tour title on Sunday, his sixth Memorial title. Then stride into Merion and win his 15th major. But there is a player you probably don't know yet who might have something to say about the latter goal.