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U.S. OPEN PREVIEW: Woods favorite to win U.S. Open, end drought; Tech's Kuchar eyes first major

Tiger Woods, the odds-on favorite to win this year’s U.S. Open that begins today, smiles as he walks the course during his final practice round Wednesday. Woods hasn’t won a major in five years.

Tiger Woods, the odds-on favorite to win this year’s U.S. Open that begins today, smiles as he walks the course during his final practice round Wednesday. Woods hasn’t won a major in five years.

Want To Watch?

WHO: World’s top men’s professional golfers.

WHAT: 2013 U.S. Open.

WHEN: First round begins today at 9:30 a.m.

WHERE: Ardmore, Pa., famed Merion golf course.

TV: ESPN.

ARDMORE, Pa. — Merion Golf Club has been linked with some of the most iconic moments in championship golf, and Tiger Woods will aim to add a chapter of his own when he competes there in this week’s U.S. Open as the overwhelming favorite.

A host of other in-form players can lay claim to being genuine contenders for the year’s second major, which begins today, but Woods — stuck in a five-year majors drought — is widely viewed as the likeliest winner based on his outstanding record and the often dominant form he has shown this season.

Though Woods did not fare well in his most recent start, languishing a tie for 65th in a field of 73 at the Memorial Tournament eight days ago, he has triumphed four times on the 2013 PGA Tour and is clearly the player to beat at Merion.

With much of his golf this year, the American world No. 1 has revived memories of his glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and he will be eager to end a major title drought dating back to his playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open.

“I feel comfortable with the motion I’m making,” three-time U.S. Open champion Woods said of the progress he has made in consultation with coach Sean Foley following the fourth swing change of his career. “All the stretches where I’ve played well for a few years, a few tournaments. I just felt good about what I was able to do … being able to fix it (the swing) on the fly. That took a little bit of time, and I finally have turned the corner.”

Woods then added: “What you’re seeing this year is that I’ve gotten more precise and I’ve been able to work on other parts of my game and made them strengths.”

Woods was bitterly disappointed with his overall game at the Memorial Tournament, especially his putting, and was swift to outline what needed improving for Merion when asked by reporters.

“Everything,” the 14-times major champion replied. “You want everything clicking on all cylinders, especially at the U.S. Open because everything is tested in the U.S. Open.”

Merion’s iconic East Course will be hosting its fifth U.S. Open this week, but its first in 32 years after long being regarded as too short to host a major.

PRECISE SHOT-MAKING

The par-70 layout located in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore has been stretched to 6,996 yards since Australian David Graham triumphed by three strokes in the 1981 edition, and Woods appreciates that precise shot-making is required for success.

This is a course, after all, where Bobby Jones completed his “grand slam” by winning the 1930 U.S. amateur, where Ben Hogan claimed the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after being involved in a near-fatal motor vehicle accident and where Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff to win the 1971 U.S. Open.

“If you look at the list of champions, they have all been really good shot-makers,” said Woods, who played 13 holes of practice at Merion on Sunday.

“They have all been able to shape the golf ball. That’s what it lends itself to. You have to be able to shape the golf ball, and you have to be so disciplined to play the course.”

Phil Mickelson, runner-up a record five times at the U.S. Open, visited Merion last week and was lavish with his praise for a layout that has thick rough, narrow, tilted fairways, deep bunkers, contoured greens and several semi-blind tee shots.

“It’s really a wonderful set-up, the best I’ve seen,” said the four-times major champion.

“They gave you birdie opportunities on the easy holes, and they made tough pars a little bit harder, which allows the player that is playing well to separate himself from the field.”

As ever at a U.S. Open, the ability to minimise errors and to stay patient on slick greens and tight fairways flanked by thick, graduated rough will be defining traits in the make-up of this week’s champion.

Because of Merion’s limited yardage and its mix of long with short holes, United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis has predicted more birdies than usual at a U.S. Open, and a greater number of potential winners.

“There’s going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history,” said Davis. “Why? Because there are just some holes out here that lend themselves to it.

“And there are probably more players that can potentially win this U.S. Open than in any other U.S. Open venue we go to. Some of that is the overall distance, that we’re under 7,000 yards. It allows more players to be competitive.”

Included in that long list of potential winners are Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia, Englishmen Justin Rose and Luke Donald, and in-form American Matt Kuchar, who clinched his sixth PGA Tour title at the Memorial Tournament.

Northern Irish world number two Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion at Congressional, is another likely contender as he bids to claim his first tournament victory this season after winning five times worldwide last year.


KUCHAR ALSO ONE OF THE FAVORITES:

ARDMORE, Pa. --- Former Georgia Tech star Matt Kuchar has an extra spring in his step for this week’s U.S. Open, having been installed among the favourites for the year’s second major after winning the elite Memorial Tournament 10 days ago.

Though Kuchar has yet to claim one of golf’s four blue riband events, he has triumphed at every other level in the game and likes his chances heading into Thursday’s opening round at Merion Golf Club.

“There are a few times a year you really hope to be playing excellent golf, this is one of them,” the American world number four told reporters at a sun-drenched Merion on Wednesday. “It’s nice to be coming off the win.

“That’s a fantastic test of golf at Memorial and it tests everything there, driver through wedge. It was great to perform well, have that extra confidence coming in this week.

“If you’re not clicking on all cylinders, a U.S. Open golf course is going to really show that and beat you up. I’m looking forward to playing this week and hoping the good performance continues.”

Kuchar clinched the Jack Nicklaus-hosted Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio by two shots to become the PGA Tour’s second multiple winner this season after Tiger Woods.

Perhaps more significantly, it continued his steady upward path of success as he bids to land his first major title.

“I feel like in my golfing career I’ve made steps in the right direction,” said the 34-year-old Kuchar, a six-times champion on the PGA Tour.

“I’ve won regular Tour events, won big Tour events, won the Players Championship, won a Barclays FedExCup event. I won a World Golf Championship. I feel like I’ve kind of stepped up in the ranks of winning against the best players in the world.

Kuchar won his first World Golf Championships title, widely regarded as just one rung down from the majors, at the Accenture Match Play Championship in February. That followed on from his triumph at last year’s Players Championship, the unofficial “fifth major”.

Ever humble, he does not embrace suggestions that he can now be bracketed among the best players in the modern game still waiting for a maiden grand slam title.

“There’s a lot of us in that boat, and I don’t know that I’m quite in that talk yet,” Kuchar smiled.

“I know that a lot of people have been yelling out that they have got me in their pools and they’re picking me this week, but we hear a lot of that talk every week.

“However, I feel like I’m on good form. I feel like I’m playing some good golf. I’m looking to continue to play good golf. I’m looking forward to competing and trying to put my name on this trophy.”

Kuchar, whose tie for eighth at the Masters in April also gave him a major jolt of confidence, played a practice round at Merion on Tuesday afternoon and was surprised to see how well the course had drained after more than six inches of rain here since Friday.

“I was amazed … how dry the course seemed to be,” he said. “Really still got some run in the fairways. Greens were receptive, but still had nice speed on them for the amount of slope they have got.

“The rough is thick and nasty. If you’re playing from the rough, you have no chance of scoring here.”

Kuchar is scheduled to tee off in Thursday’s opening round in the company of English world number five Justin Rose and sixth-ranked American Brandt Snedeker.