SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Two years have elapsed since the golf world last converged on Long Island and wondered whether Tiger Woods would ever find a rival or ever lose another major.
Two years have passed without another Woods major triumph. Seven different players have won seven different majors since Woods won his seventh of 11 in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
Two years later golf's greatest have returned to Long Island for another U.S. Open on the classic links-style venue at Shinnecock Hills. While Woods remains No. 1 in the world, much has changed in the interim.
Instead of wondering whether anyone will stand up to golf's best player, we wonder whether we can stand the intensity. The confluence of the greatest players at their peak on potentially the greatest U.S. Open venue brings the potential for one of the greatest championships in the game's long history.
Ernie Els ... Phil Mickelson ... Vijay Singh ... Sergio Garcia - all of them at the top of their games and nipping at the tail of a Tiger poised to resume his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus. Throw in the likes of Davis Love III, Mike Weir, Padraig Harrington, David Toms, Retief Goosen and Fred Couples playing well and the weekend prospects seem even more tantalizing. On the heels of maybe the most dramatic Masters Tournament finale of all time, can it get any better?
"Golf is getting exactly where everybody wants it to be now," three-time major winner Nick Price said. "It's like having the greatest horses running for the Triple Crown. That's what makes golf so exciting.
"Think back two years ago when we were all talking about Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, you could see it was eating away at Ernie and eating away at Sergio and Davis and those guys. Now they're coming on strong. They've caught up and that fear factor is no longer a huge issue. It's going to be an interesting Open and that's what we all want to see. Those guys going into Sunday all within two or three shots of each other."
The principal characters themselves certainly sense something special in the making.
"Everything is right there, you know, and it's kind of exciting," said Els, who has two U.S. Opens among his three major titles. "So it's quite an open U.S. Open this year."
Els narrowly missed winning the Masters and has won twice this year including the Memorial two weeks ago. He could overtake Woods as the No. 1 player with a victory this week.
Mickelson won his first major and is playing the finest and most consistent golf of his career. Singh has three victories this season and six other top 10s that have him leading the money list.
Garcia quickly assumed the mantle of best player without a major by backing up a finishing flourish for fourth at the Masters with his fourth and fifth career PGA Tour wins at the Byron Nelson Championship and Buick Classic.
Then there is Woods, struggling with his control but still posting three consecutive top-four finishes heading into the U.S. Open.
"(2004) has been a great year for a number of players," Mickelson said. "Vijay has played terrific. Ernie has played terrific. Tiger has been playing well. ... There are a lot of guys that are going to try to make this a special year."
With all of the challengers lined up, the one player who stands to make any tournament more special is Woods. His seven-major drought has been classified a slump by some and his relative wildness off the tee this season has raised more concerns. But Woods has displayed an ability to recover and make putts that is every bit as impressive as during his incredible run from 1999-2002 when he dominated the game like nobody ever had before.
Woods labels this season "not great, but certainly successful." His peers know he's still the man to beat this week.
"I think we all know when Tiger reaches his level of play he is still almost unstoppable," Mickelson said. "We're still trying to get to that level where we can compete with him when he's playing his best. I think we can all appreciate that he's sharing the wealth and letting us win some tournaments."
With the gap as close as it's been in years, the competition is as exciting as ever. Some have questioned whether Woods can still reach Nicklaus' standard of 18 major wins or if he can ever put together such a sustained rate of dominance as he did before he left Long Island two years ago.
While the contenders might not be as intimidated by him when they step on the tee at Shinnecock or anywhere else, they are certainly wary that there is one horse in this race with the potential to run away from the field.
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