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Golf: U.S. Open is wide open

By Douig Ferguson
Associated Press
Four players have taken their turns at No. 1, the highest number between U.S. Opens in the 25-year history of the world ranking. Four players won their first major in the last 12 months. Four others captured their first World Golf Championship.
And itís largely because of a guy whoís not even playing.
The presence Tiger Woods brings to golf is felt even more strongly in his absence.
Woods will not be at Congressional, missing the U.S. Open for the first time in 17 years because of lingering injuries to his left leg. Some could argue he has been missing for the last year as he has tried to mend his personal life, his health and his golf swing. He has gone 18 months without winning, paving the way for a new generation of stars to emerge.
And they have.
Graeme McDowell started off by winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and he peeled back a massive layer of Woodsí mystique at the end of the year by overcoming a four-shot deficit in the final round and beating him in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge.
Louis Oosthuizen (British Open), Martin Kaymer (PGA Championship) and Charl Schwartzel (Masters) ó all of them in their 20s ó won the next three majors. Lee Westwood ended Woodsí five-year stay atop the world ranking, and Kaymer and Luke Donald since have gone to No. 1 in the world over the last four months.
None of that seemed possible when Woods was on top of his game, dominating to such a degree that he won nearly 30 percent of his tournaments.
Are players getting better? Or were they always this good and no one noticed? Maybe it takes Woods being gone to realize just how good he was.
ěSome of the younger players came along when Tiger was on a tear, and they were in his shadow,î Mark OíMeara said. ěHe was bigger than life. But now that Tiger is somewhat removed from the game, theyíve been able to shine.î
With the absence of Woods ó and to a lesser extent, Phil Mickelson, who has only one win in the last year ó the new landscape in golf features parity not seen in some 20 years. When the 111th edition of the U.S. Open begins outside the nationís capital in Bethesda, Md., no one will stand out as a clear favorite.
ěTiger has been the dominant player in this generation, really since the mid-90s,î Stewart Cink said. ěEventually, he wonít be anymore. Maybe thatís already happening ó we donít know. He won so many tournaments, maybe there were just less available to win.î
That sounds like Colin Montgomerieís theory from years ago on why it was so hard to win majors. Montgomerie reasoned that Woods was winning two a year, leaving only two majors for everyone else.
Now, theyíre all up for grabs.
Ten players have won the last 10 majors. Only two of those players, Mickelson and Angel Cabrera, had won before. The last time Woods had to skip a major, because of season-ending knee surgery in 2008, there was debate whether an asterisk would be placed next to the winnerís name because Woods wasnít in the field.
There will be no talk of an asterisk at Congressional.
Even if Woods were around, this U.S. Open lives up to its name ó open.
ěAnybody can win,î Davis Love III said. ěYou canít say itís going to be either Tiger or Phil or (Jim) Furyk or Luke Donald. Itís wide open. Itís like when Greg Norman was the favorite and everybody looked to him. I donít know if you can pick a favorite for the U.S. Open.î

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