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Shinnecock Easy? Maybe For Ernie

By Nick Nicholas, Contributor

Who's your pick to win the U.S. Open?

Tiger Woods? Phil Mickelson?

Ernie Els? Vijay Singh?

Someone else?

Someone else maybe the logical selection. Well, not someone, but something else.

Pick the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

The last time the USGA visited the Southampton gem, Corey Pavin won the 1995 Centennial U.S. Open with an even-par 280 score. In 1986, Ray Floyd was the lone player in the field to finish in red numbers.

If given the option to play or take Floyd's 1-under par 279 total, most players wouldn't leave Shinnecock's historic clubhouse.

Never mind that golf technology the last nine years has come a l-o-n-g ways. Yes, golf balls carom off super-sized clubfaces as if they're super balls. But the USGA usually has the last laugh. The world's best players with the best equipment will be tormented by Shinnecock's tight design and hosel-strangling rough, beginning with the innocent short par-4 No. 1 (FYI: players will start the first two rounds on either Nos. 1 or 10).

Since Pavin's final-round heroic 4-wood shot only once has even-par secured a U.S. Open title. Lee Janzen finished with an even-par total at The Olympic Club to fend off the late Payne Stewart by one stroke.

The past nine years the other winning tallies extend from Stewart's 1-under total in 1999 on Pinehurst No. 2 to Woods' record-tying 12-under 272 in 2000 at Pebble Beach Golf Links. And, twice 4-under has been good enough to hoist the U.S. Open Championship cup.

This week the world's best players will be coping with a demanding par-70, 6,996-yard course that boasts both a cruel 75.1 rating and 142 slope.

Not listed on the scorecard, meanwhile, are tangibles more favorable for European Tour players: a links-style layout, two-club winds, ankle-high rough and firm greens that are near impossible to hold thanks to subtle undulations.

"I think that Shinnecock, the key is about putting the ball in play, leaving yourself an opportunity around the green," says defending champion Jim Furyk, who plans to play despite being sidelined since January due to wrist surgery. "I don't want to be a prognosticator . I think you have to take a look at the guys that are playing well right now. Phil is playing so well, Vijay is playing so well. I'm going to take the obvious answer and look at the guys who are in the Top 5 on the money list and playing consistently (well) all year.

"A guy like Mike Weir, who may have a game where he hits the ball relatively flat, relatively low trajectory in the wind. So if the wind blows real hard, (he) hits the ball very straight and has an extremely underrated short game. His short game is probably the best on Tour. I think there is a good choice."

Trying to nail down the 2004 U.S. Open champion is just part of the story. Story lines are aplenty at Shinnecock's fourth U.S. Open:

The not over-the-hill gang: Jay Haas, Fred Couples, Nick Faldo and Kenny Perry. It's only been two years since the last U.S. Open took place on Long Island. Both Haas and Faldo were on Sunday's leaderboard at Bethpage, finishing tied for fifth and 12th, respectively. Haas, now eligible for the Champions Tour, continues to compete with the younger generation and may qualify for spot on this fall's USA Ryder Cup team. As for the 44-year-old Couples, he finished tied for sixth in last April's Masters and in the last two weeks was runner-up at the Memorial and tied for fourth at the Buick Classic. Perry, 43, tied for third during this year's unofficial fifth major, The Players Championship, and in 2003 posted three victories during a four-tournament stretch.

This is their kind of tournament: Weather conditions on Long Island can push players around, especially during afternoon rounds. Ths cold work in favor of Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson, England's Faldo, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and Paul Casey, and Ireland's Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke. They're certainly used to donning wind jackets while managing to guide shots with and against the wind.

They like this course, but.: Floyd and Pavin will try to relive past major success at Shinnecock. It will be a major story if either even makes the cut.

Their time is now: Sergio Garcia, Chad Campbell, Harrington and Clarke are considered to have the best opportunities to reel in their first major. Garcia, meanwhile, is playing the best of this early never-to-win-a-major foursome. He owns two titles this year (EDS Byron Nelson Championship and last week's Buick Classic) and capped off a fourth-place tie in the Masters with a 66.

Crowd favorite: Too easy. It's Phil Mickelson. Two years ago massive galleries at Bethpage embraced Mickelson throughout the entire tournament. Although Woods turned back his bid to win a major, Mickelson left New York appreciating the support. Vice versa. No more does Lefty carry the pressure of trying to win his first major title. While this week's crowd probably won't be as vocal - remember this tournament is in the Hamptons, not at public-driven Bethpage Black - they still will be supportive. You'll her the roars when Mickelson makes a birdie or one of his patented up-and-downs to save par, especially if he's in contention to win back-to-back majors.

A new crowd favorite: It could be Garcia. Sure, his mild temper-tantrum at Bethpage flipped off more than a few fans. But New Yorkers love a fighter who can back it up. Unless he wears a Boston Red Sox cap, there is a strong chance Garcia will return to New York this time as a crowd favorite. No longer is his pre-shot routine agonizingly painful. He's also won twice in Westchester.

An old crowd favorite: Woods. It's actually his turn to claim another U.S. Open. He won in 2000 and 2002. Another omen is that Long Island is the site of his last major championship victory. It all depends on his ability to put the ball in the fairway. If Woods' precision doesn't improve - he enters the tournament 147th in driving accuracy percentage - he won't be in contention on Sunday. It will be a good sign if he can maneuver his opening tee shot onto the first fairway at 8 a.m. Thursday.

Don't bet on them, but bet everyone will be watching: Jim Furyk and David Duval. Furyk is playing in his first tournament since mid-January. Of all the courses and tournaments to try out a surgically repaired wrist . this is as difficult as it gets. Same with Duval, who hasn't played since missing the cut at last October's Las Vegas Invitational. The last No. 1 player in the world prior to Woods, Duval enters this week ranked No. 434.

The winner: Ernie Els by a stroke over Mickelson. If not for Mickelson's stellar Sunday back nine at Augusta, Els would have a green jacket to go next to his three other major titles. While his driving accuracy is a poor 137th, Els is owner of the second best scoring average (69.11) behind only Mickelson. He also has three victories this year including the Heineken Classic on the European Tour. More importantly, he understands that on this stage par is a good score: two U.S. Open victories and a 2002 British Open triumph at Muirfield.

Nick Nicholas, Contributor

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