It has the makings of one of the epic contests of all time.
No, not the campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. It's this week's U.S. Open golf tournament, on San Diego's picturesque hills directly overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on a course that happens to be the single best venue in the world for both of the world's greatest players. Tiger Woods has won there, at the course called Torrey Pines, six times as a professional, and Phil Mickelson has three pro titles there. Both won junior titles there as well, and Mickelson played it numerous times while growing up in the area.
But, because this is one of those rare Opens played on a course also used annually for a regular tour event, dozens of players in the field also have substantial records at Torrey Pines, a fair number of them with notable success. Masters champion Trevor Immelman, for instance, won the U.S. Public Links tournament there in 1998 -- and, as the only golfer on the planet who can possibly win the Grand Slam of golf this year, he enters the event off of an impressive 2nd place (playoff) finish last week at Memphis.
The final hole at Torrey Pines, meanwhile, might be the best risk-reward closing test in Open history. A par 5 that is barely reachable in two shots if both shots are long and straight, its green guarded across half of its front by a large pond and known for a wickedly sharp slope, the 18th could easily yield every score from eagle to double-bogey just among the final three or four groups. Imagine a final pairing of Woods and Mickelson, both in the "first cut" of light rough 260 yards from the green, both needing birdie to tie clubhouse leader Immelman or an eagle to defeat him without a playoff. Will Mickelson, facing a semi-dodgy lie, have another brain cramp and slash away, or will he for once lay up, counting on his superior wedge play to set him up for a birdie? Will Woods be at all affected by whatever Mickelson decides to do, or will he pay no heed to Lefty?
Or maybe it will be another third wheel, not Immelman, trying to ruin the Tiger-Phil party. Can talented Davis Love III find magic one more time at age 44, as he just recently shows signs of emerging from a terrible slump? Love won at Torrey Pines in 1996. Mark Calcavecchia, Lee Janzen, Jesper Parnevik, Mark O'Meara, Luke Donald, and Charles Howell III, all in the field this week, all have notched runner-up finishes at Torrey Pines, the latter three of them twice each. Japanese-born Ryuji Imada finished second to Woods there earlier this year, and then won in Atlanta last month. Brilliant at putting and around the greens, Imada might find ways to save par after par to stay in the hunt.
Former U.S. Amateur Champion Justin Leonard nabbed an impressive 12th professional win last week, with a British Open and a Players Championship among his triumphs. He finished 5th at Torrey Pines in February, and has (statistically) been both driving the ball straight and putting well all year long. Even journeyman Bart Bryant could be a real threat: He ranks high statistically both in driving accuracy, a crucial element this week, and in "scrambling" around the greens. He finished 7th in San Diego in 2007, has been on a hot streak recently, and will be half of the only brother-brother participants in the field, as older brother Brad Bryant qualified by winning last year's U.S. Senior Open.
(Three other longer shots to watch: Stephen Ames, Ben Crane, and ace grinder Scott Verplank. Three other stars who enter on the heels of some very hot play: Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, and Ernie Els.)
Finally, watch temperamental young Pat Perez, whose volatility has gotten in the way of realizing his potential so far. But Perez grew up playing at Torrey Pines as his home course, and he qualified for the Open the hard way, in a 36-hole qualifier two weeks ago. No single part of his game stands out, but in the "All-Around" statistical category, which combines every other stat kept by the PGA Tour, Perez ranks third on the whole pro circuit.
For fans, this all will ferment into a tasty brew. Great players at the top of their games, all with something to prove, on an unusually scenic course brutal in its length and designed, unlike many Open courses, not as much for enervating attrition as for shotmaking drama. It's not just the 18th hole that impresses: the 17th is a killer, too, with a creek (or ditch) running down the left side and a devilish green. And the cliffside holes, while not bringing the Pacific directly into play as Pebble Beach does, still provide a sense that Mighty and Fickle Nature, in the shape of a strong sea zephyr, might play havoc with golf balls and psyches alike.
Some major tournaments have the feel of duds for weeks leading up to them, not because the course isn't worthy or because the game itself has lost luster, but just because the alchemy isn't right. But this U.S. Open, hard by the sea, boasts exactly the opposite karma. Something intensely memorable, perhaps even inspirational, is likely to happen there this week. Some U.S. Opens are given away by cringe-inducing mistakes. This one instead promises to be ennobling. Who will be ennobled isn't yet clear. But don't let yourself miss this tournament. Its champion promises to be one for the ages.
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