June 15, 2008. Remember where you were?
One year ago today, eyes were glued to TV sets across the country, fixated on one of the best you-can't-make-this-up sports moments in recent history unfolding in San Diego.
Tiger Woods, the world's best golfer, had to sink this twelve foot putt. Not to win, mind you—Woods was merely trying to tie a remarkable four-day performance by 45 year-old Rocco Mediate, a man who hadn't won more than five PGA Tour events in his life.
America waited on pins and needles as Woods stood over his ball, still limping from a week of long walks and lingering pain from a recent knee surgery. Woods leaned over, set his feet, looked up to check his line, and stroked the putt.
The ball snuck in the right side of the hole, forcing an 18-hole playoff.
"I knew he'd make it."
The next day saw Mediate hold his own in one of the finest head-to-head playoffs ever seen. Through the 90th hole, five grueling rounds after they first started the Thursday before, Mediate and Woods remained even with each other.
Woods finally broke the tie one hole later, but Mediate's happy-go-lucky demeanor won him a lot of fans and his performance will not be forgotten anytime soon.
As the opening round of this year's US Open at Bethpage Black approaches later this week, it's only right that we wonder "Who will it be this year?"
It's unlikely that the '09 tournament will unfold with as much drama as it predecessor, but hey, why shouldn't it? Keep your eyes on these four golfers (in order of best challenger, first to last)—they might just be able to take Tiger to the wire for the second year in a row.
The small-statured South African is widely considered the hottest golfer who has yet to win a PGA event. Clark finished second two weeks ago at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and will look to contend again this weekend.
Clark ranks fourth in driving accuracy and 24th in greens hit in regulation (GIR), which will help him a great deal when faced with the small greens, thick US Open rough and numerous well-placed bunkers at Bethpage.
Clark is also resilient, ranking sixth in "scrambling" (par conversions after missing the green) and eighth in "bounce back" (scoring over par on one hole and "bouncing back" to score under par on the next hole), so don't expect him to slump if he hits a bad shot.
One more thing—he saves his best for last. Clark averages 69.18 in final rounds this year, good enough for seventh on the Tour.
Stricker has won five PGA events, his most recent victory coming two weeks ago at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, where he beat (guess who?) Tim Clark in a playoff.
Stricker is a short game whiz, leading the Tour in scrambling and ranking tenth in GIR. He's also the best at scoring under par on par-fours, having made birdie or better more than 20 percent of the time.
Stricker is not a long hitter, nor is he remarkably accurate off the tee, but he's a good closer—this year, he leads the tour in average score on the back nine, just ahead of Clark and Woods.
For a guy who couldn't even get his Tour card four years ago, a good showing at Bethpage would be very sweet indeed.
The 37 year-old Aussie is starting to peak at just the right time—he finished fourth yesterday at the St. Jude Classic, and momentum definitely applies to a streaky game like golf.
Allenby has a good balance of length and accuracy off the tee and does a good job of placing himself in positions which breed success (he ranks seventh in ball striking, a combination of driving distance, driving accuracy and GIR).
Statistically, he's the best sand player on the Tour, so it shouldn't surprise you if he rolls one in from a greenside bunker during the course of the weekend.
Like Woods, Allenby also knows how to play through pain. Thirteen years ago, he suffered a broken sternum and other injuries in a car accident in Spain which nearly derailed his career. Thirteen years is a long time, but dealing with adversity isn't something one forgets.
O'Hair is one of the better young players on the Tour, having taken home Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 at age 23. He's off to a good start this year as well, having won the Quail Hollow Championship in early May.
At the moment, O'Hair ranks first in the All-Around Ranking, an aggregate total of a player's rankings in driving distance, driving accuracy, GIR, putting average, holes per eagle, birdie average, scoring average and sand save percentage.
The next closest competitor is Clark, but the margin between them? A whopping 41 points!
O'Hair is second in GIR, second in ball striking and third in "bounce back," not to mention second in par breakers (percentage of holes on which he scored birdie or better).
If he can keep his ball in the fairway, he has the kind of youthful moxie that could press Tiger. He's got motivation, too: O'Hair was leading the Arnold Palmer Invitational after the third round, but ended up finishing second. The winner? Woods.
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