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Playing The Field at Pebble Beach

One thing’s for certain. Tiger Woods won’t win this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots. Take that one to Vegas. In fact, it used to be that if someone offered you a bet to give you Tiger and take the field in any given tournament, you’d be foolish not to bet on the world’s greatest player, especially in a major championship.

Not anymore. These days, you’d take the field every time and not even flinch.

The last time the Open was at Pebble Beach, in 2000, Woods ate up the golf course and chewed up the field, finishing 72 holes at 12-under par. Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second at 3 over. It was astounding golf, maybe the best anyone has ever played in a single week.

But that’s in the distant past, nothing but a sweet memory, a lifetime away in many respects. The world of golf has turned upside down since then. Woods is not nearly the player he used to be, even a short while ago, and a rash of 20-somethings are showing up in trophy-kissing pictures.

That’s not to say Woods is washed up at 34, although he’s a fairly old and beaten-up 34, given all his injuries, breakdowns and personal problems. That said, it can be fairly stated that, for the first time, Woods is entered in the U.S. Open and clearly is not the favorite.

You might want to read that preceding sentence again just to make certain. Yes, it’s true. He’s not expected to win. If that’s really the case – and it really is – who is ready to take his place? The short answer is: everyone and no one. For the first time in years, the U.S. Open is wide open and a short list of potential winners could turn quite long.

Normally, you’d look next to the World No. 2 for a probable favorite, but Phil Mickelson hasn’t given us much of a clue as to his form coming in, except for some lightning bolts of promise at the Memorial. But there were also just as many disasters, leaving Mickelson to head off to consult with Messrs. Harmon and Stockton for some damage control before leaving for Pebble.

Mickelson has trophies from Pebble Beach, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am three times, but Pebble in February and Pebble for the Open are creatures of a different stripe. Mickelson was tuning up for the Open by using a bunch of 2-irons off tees at the Memorial, giving a preview of coming attractions as to his strategy for Pebble. But with Mickelson, you never know what’s in his bag or in his head until game day.

You might want to have a glance at Els, who has two U.S. Opens to his credit and, if not for Woods, would have contended for the title in 2000. Els has won twice this year, which would raise some eyebrows, but has done next to nothing since winning the WGC-CA Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

Steve Stricker, the No. 4 player on the Official World Golf Ranking, went missing in action in the spring with shoulder problems and has been out of sight, out of mind lately, with no indication that he might play well in the year’s second major.

Barely on the beaten path is Dustin Johnson, who has won the AT&T the past two years in succession. He is a long and not-too-erratic hitter who should have a bucketful of confidence when he tees it up at Pebble Beach. Not to beat a deceased horse, but this is the Open, not the Clambake.

Johnson is one of 10 players in their 20s who have won on the PGA Tour this year, which would lead you to believe there’s a new world order, if not full screen, at least on the horizon. But the most talented of that group are Anthony Kim and Justin Rose, neither of whom will compete in the Open. Kim is recovering from hand surgery and Rose failed to get through sectional qualifying.

The interesting tout is Lee Westwood, who was fifth at the Open in 2000 and was a shot out of the Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008. He has slipped into the No. 3 spot in the world ranking and is on the short list for best player not to win a major. He had a real live chance at The Masters, but couldn’t hold the final-round lead, finishing runner-up to Mickelson.

Besides, a European hasn’t won the Open since fellow Englishman Tony Jacklin took the title in 1970. So that would seem to count out Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, all in the top 10 in the world ranking.

So, if no one can win the Open, who do you bet on? Well, there is this guy named Woods, who won one of these things with a disappearing knee and a broken leg. Think about it. Still want to take the field?


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