112th U.S. Open Championship Preview

12:26 PM, Jun 11, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It isn't often that you enter a major with several of the top players in the game at the top of their respective games.

Three of the top four players in the world have all won in recent weeks, and enter the season's second major as the clear favorites.

World No. 1 Luke Donald reclaimed the top spot in the rankings when he successfully defended his title at the BMW PGA Championship. It was also at that event last year in which he took the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.

Rory McIlroy, No. 2 in the world, had missed three straight cuts, but added Memphis to his schedule to shake off some rust and get some more game reps in. Mission accomplished, as he tied for seventh after entering the final round one shot off the lead.

Lee Westwood, the third-ranked player in the world, rolled to an easy win in Sweden on Saturday. The Englishman posted four rounds in the 60s to win by five strokes.

And tournament organizers gave him, and a few others, a break by going Wednesday to Saturday so those players in both fields had an extra day to travel from Stockholm to San Francisco.

Then, of course, there is Tiger Woods. Now the fourth-ranked player in the world, the three-time U.S. Open champion earned his second win of the year two weeks ago at The Memorial.

It seemed everyone thought Woods' win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year would propel him to more Masters glory. However, he struggled all weekend and ended in a tie for 40th.

So what do we make of Woods? Is he a contender or a pretender? He has been healthy all year and even when he is 70-percent of his normal self, Woods is still better than most players out there.

Woods, who missed last year's U.S. Open due to injury, is easily the betting favorite as he heads to The Olympic Club.

In fact, the top four players in the world are among the top favorites. Woods is followed by Donald and McIlroy. Westwood and Phil Mickelson come after that, and they are clearly among the favorites heading into the U.S. Open.

Mickelson has been a bridesmaid at the U.S. Open having never won, but finishing second five times. During his long run without having won a major, Mickelson shared 10th place at The Olympic Club in 1998, posting just one round at par (70) and three rounds over par.

He crushed Tiger in a head-to-head showdown at Pebble Beach earlier this year, but hasn't won since. Mickelson has four top-10 finishes in his nine starts since Pebble, but withdrew from the Memorial citing fatigue.

That won't be an issue for the left-hander at The Olympic Club.

Masters champions Bubba Watson has had more to celebrate than just his first major championship. He and his wife adopted a son, and that has caused Watson to take several weeks off.

Watson defended his title in New Orleans, but shared 18th thanks mostly to a third-round, seven-under 65. He played two weeks ago at the Memorial, but missed the cut.

If Watson can keep his ball in play, he'll be a threat.

Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner join Woods as the only two-time winners this season on the PGA Tour.

Mahan has missed the cut at the last two U.S. Opens, but that came after he reeled off three straight top-20 finishes at the second major of the year.

Since his win at the Houston Open, Mahan has finished no better than tied for 12th. He won his second World Golf Championship event earlier in the year, and will look to win his first major this week.

Dufner, who lost a playoff at last year's PGA Championship, might be the hottest player in the men's game heading to the Olympic Club. He has won two of his last four starts, and took second at the Colonial. Dufner tops the money list, but doesn't have much of a record at this championship.

The 35-year-old has made the cut three of the five times he has competed at the U.S. Open, but hasn't finished better than tied for 33rd.

The Olympic Club has a long history of hosting USGA Championships. Along with a Junior Amateur and three U.S. Amateurs, Olympic has played host to four previous U.S. Opens.

The winning scores have ranged from seven-over par in 1955 (Jack Fleck) to three-under par in 1987 (Scott Simpson)

In 1998, the last time The Olympic Club hosted the U.S. Open, Lee Janzen rallied in the final round to beat Payne Stewart. After a pair of early bogeys, Janzen trailed Stewart by seven strokes.

Janzen went four-under par over the final 15 holes to catch Stewart, who had led after each of the first three rounds. Stewart would bounce back and win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst the following year. He died later in 1999 in a plane crash.

Janzen has been struggling with his game so much so that he played a pair of Nationwide Tour events in the past month. He tried to qualify for this Open, but failed.

Three players in the field this week -- Rickie Fowler, Brian Harman and Kyle Stanley -- played in both the Junior Amateur and the Amateur. Harman was the stroke-play medalist at the Junior Am.

Colt Knost earned one of the last spots in the field on Sunday. He won the U.S. Amateur at The Olympic Club over Michael Thompson. Ironically, the duo will be paired together for the first two rounds this week.

They will all join McIlroy at The Olympic Club as defends his title. Last year in soft conditions at Congressional, the Northern Irishman tied or broke 12 U.S. Open records.

McIlroy reached 17-under in the final round, the lowest anyone has ever gone at the championship. He finished at 16-under 268, which set records for lowest score and lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history.

At 22, he became the youngest winner of this championship since Bobby Jones in 1923. McIlroy was just the third player in U.S. Open history to post four rounds in the 60s.

McIlroy and the other three ranked in the top four in the world are among the clear favorites this week, but it's always easy to pick the highest-ranked players to win the biggest events.

If you slide down the rankings a little bit, Dufner and St. Jude Classic winner Dustin Johnson have the mojo going right now as well. Johnson contended two years ago, and maybe this year's prime time finish will suit him better than the one at Pebble Beach.

The Sports Network

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