Formidable test awaits US Open stars, longshots

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From ranking leaders Luke Donald and Lee Westwood of England to the most unheralded qualifiers, golfers get a unique thrill from the mental test and physical challenge of a US Open.
“We all come here excited to see what lies in front of us,” said defending champion Graeme McDowell. “The rest of the major championships have upped their game, but there’s something special about the US Open.”
The 111th edition of what many players call golf’s toughest test begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club, with Donald and Westwood seeking their first major titles as slight favorites in a wide open field of contenders.
“It’s dangerous to go and expect too much and come to a tournament expecting to win,” Donald said. “But I expect to do what I know I can do. The goal is always to have a chance on Sunday and contend. I’ve been doing that a lot lately and there’s no reason why I can’t do it this week.”
The par-71, 7,574-yard layout offers the dense rough, narrow fairways, high-lipped bunkers and lightning-fast greens that have become US Open trademarks.
But with a variety of pin placements changing the potential dangers on certain holes each day, a premium on patience and decision making comes into play like few other events.
Asked to pick a favorite, Westwood replied, “The course.”
Four-time major champion Phil Mickelson has finished second a record five times in 20 tries without winning a US Open. The US left-hander, who turns 41 on the same day he starts round one off the 10th tee, likes the challenge.
“It’s a matter of picking your spots, deciding if this is where you want to attack it, trying to just make pars on the really hard holes and seeing if you can make a few birdies here and there throughout the round,” Mickelson said.
“This course setup tests your entire game. This one tests your short game. This one tests your ability to hit recovery shots as well as your ability to get the ball and keep the ball in play.”
McDowell, who won his first major last year at Pebble Beach, said after a practice round last month that no one would shoot par on the second-longest course in US Open history. Dryer conditions have him slightly more hopeful.
“It’s not going to be very far away from level par,” he said. “I don’t see anybody going crazy around here but guys will shoot some 3-, 4-, 5-under par rounds if they get it going. The golf course does offer up some chances.
“I don’t think length is a massive issue at all. I think accuracy off the tee is a key because these greens are so firm you’re going to have to be able to control your ball flight coming into the greens.
“Someone asked me what type of player does this favor. I’m still trying to work that out, but it’s certainly not a bomber.”
Former World No. 1 Tiger Woods is no threat to win this week. The 14-time major champion withdrew last week with a nagging left knee injury.
The three men who have reached the top spot since Woods was dethroned will be paired together for the first two rounds. Donald, Westwood and World No. 3 Martin Kaymer of Germany start off the 10th tee on Thursday.
“I can’t see too many tougher holes to start on, especially off that back tee,” said South African Ernie Els, who won the 1994 US Open at Congressional and contended last year. “Your first hole of the day could be a 4-iron (220 yards) over water and a bunker at the back. Incredibly difficult start. So you have to be on right from the go. It’ll be interesting to see how the guys cope.”
Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American at fourth in the world, and South Korean K.J. Choi, the Asian No. 1 and 16th overall, seek their first major title after contending for years.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy shared third at last year’s British Open and PGA Championship and led the Masters with nine holes to play before his game fell apart.
The past 10 majors have been won by 10 different players and seven of the past eight have been first-time major champions, Mickelson’s Masters triumph last year the lone exception in that run.
“Golf is in such a good position at the moment because it’s so volatile you can get a different winner every week,” Westwood said. “It’s part of the challenge of the game at the moment.”