Mickelson up for the fight

They love a fighter in New York, and Phil Mickelson will have more than his usual share of support when he tries to end his run of near misses in the US Open over the next four days.

America's Phil Mickelson has been runner-up at the US Open four times including the last time the tournament was played at the Bethpage course in New York.
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They love a fighter in New York, and Phil Mickelson will have more than his usual share of support when he tries to end his run of near misses in the US Open at Bethpage over the next four days before concentrating on another major battle. The world No 2 should be in his element, teeing off in the company of two former winners, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, both close to recapturing their best form.

But these are not normal circumstances, as Mickelson's wife Amy is battling breast cancer and he faces an emotional roller coaster ride around the notoriously difficult Black Course. Four times a US Open runner-up, including the last time the event was played at Bethpage seven years ago, "Lefty" remains the player best equipped to topple Tiger Woods from the pinnacle of world golf. It will require an enormous test of skill, courage and composure to come out on top this week, and these are qualities Mickelson has in abundance.

If New Yorkers could pick their champion it would most certainly be him, ahead of Woods who beat his fierce rival by three shots in 2002 and is defending his title. This US Open threatens be a particularly painful experience for any player who fails to come to grips with the Black Course. In their efforts to create the hardest test the world's top golfers face, the United States Golf Association (USGA) have been blasted in the past for making the event too tough.

Narrow fairways, firm, fast greens and plenty of rough, graded so that the further astray you go the deeper it gets, are the main characteristics of a US Open course, and Bethpage more than fits the bill. In 2002, players complained that they were unable to reach the fairway from the tee on the 492-yard par four 10th. Determined to find some extra length, Nick Price aimed for the walkway leading to the fairway and hit it, joking after-wards that it was the narrowest fairway he had ever seen.

At 7,214 yards, the Black Course would be challenging enough as a par 72, and the fact that it is a par 70 helps explain why Woods was the only player to finish in red figures in 2002. Boosted by his Memorial Tournament triumph, Tiger is looking the most likely winner. In the past 50 years only Curtis Strange (1988-89) has secured back-to-back US Open victories, and only three other players in history have managed the feat - Bobby Jones (1929-30), Ralph Guldahl (1938-39) and Ben Hogan (1950-51).

But Tiger is in the business of rewriting record books and has worked harder than ever to rebuild his game following his eight-month lay-off. He has gradually rediscovered his putting touch, and his performance at the Memorial showed huge progress in the driving department. He has slightly shortened his backswing and taken a little power off, giving himself more control without sacrificing too much length.

He is having to work extra hard these days to get the best out of himself, but when Tiger is hitting fairways there looks to be only one winner. He is also the only player who could miss many of Bethpage's fairways and still be in contention on Sunday, such is the quality of his recovery play and short game. His imagination means that, even from seemingly hopeless positions, par is always a possibility, and par is usually good enough in the US Open, meaning a 15th major title for Woods is very much a possibility.

In the first two rounds Tiger plays alongside the other current major title holders, Padraig Harrington and Angel Cabrera, with the Argentine player looking better equipped to challenge. Harrington has been well below his best this year, although his style of thinking through every shot is made for major championships and he will not diminish his chances by harbouring negative thoughts. Reigning Masters champion Cabrera proved at Oakmont two years ago that he has the mental toughness to win the US Open. He makes golf look easy and if his putting is sharp he could make it two majors in a row.

Tiger's epic battle with Rocco Mediate, and injury, a year ago almost eclipsed the fact Lee Westwood probably played the best golf tee to green, but hardly holed a significant putt and came up a shot short of making the play-off. This year, Westwood has not been firing on all cylinders, but is still one of the game's best drivers and a good putting week could see him right up there again on Sunday.

The trio of Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas and Adam Scott will pull a good crowd, although I see big signs of underachievement there. Garcia has putted poorly for several years and I struggle to understand why a player who used to be so good on the greens has not been able to sort out his problems. Despite some impressive wins, Scott has not come through in the way he was expected to and needs to find some inspiration.

Young, big hitting and fearless, Anthony Kim, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have the length and all-round games to go all the way. While each has a great deal still to learn, the US Open is a key part of golf's learning curve and the fastest learner may have something to say this week. One fascinating pairing brings together Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open champion and current PGA Tour leading money winner, 2003 champion Jim Furyk and Europe's big hope, Paul Casey.

All three have everything they need to conquer Bethpage, but after reviewing the prospects of all the main challengers I come to the unavoidable conclusion that Tiger has more assets, including the ability to think his way around a golf course better than any other player. It's going to take a big performance to beat him. pparkin@thenational.ae