To golf fans, the official start to summer is the United States Open Championship, the second of the four grand slam events.
The 109th edition of golf's second oldest major will be played this week on the Black course at Bethpage State Park in Nassau County, New York. The course last hosted the event in 2002, when world No. 1 Tiger Woods earned a three-shot victory over Phil Mickelson.
Both Mickelson and Woods are among the favorites again in 2009, and both offer intriguing story lines for fans and members of the golfing press.
Woods, of course, is the defending champion after his amazing and courageous win at Torrey Pines in 2008 while playing on a badly injured knee. A win at Bethpage would be his 15th professional major and move him one step closer to Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18. It would also signal his return as the undisputed best player in the world.
Mickelson, who has always been a crowd favorite among the boisterous Long Island crowds, will be a sentimental choice because of the health issues of his wife Amy, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
A win would also erase some of the sting of his collapse on the final hole at Winged Foot in 2006 when, needing a par to win, Phil made an ugly double bogey to lose by a shot. Mickelson is winless in the 11 majors played since that June Sunday.
Of course there are other golfers in the field, even if Phil and Tiger frequently monopolize the attention of both the galleries and TV viewers. Here is my list of the 20 players most likely to win the U.S. Open, from No. 20 to No. 1.
No. 20—Hunter Mahan, United States
Mahan is a great ball striker, currently ranked 13th in total driving and 14th in ball striking on the PGA Tour. He's also one of a handful of young Americans who should win a major someday.
A streaky putter, Mahan can make birdies in bunches when he gets hot. While that typically doesn't suit the style of play required at a U.S. Open, the 49th-ranked player in world showed he might be ready for a major breakthrough with a 10th-place finish at the 2009 Masters.
No. 19—Stephen Ames, Canada
Ranked 52nd in the world, the native of Trinidad has a game suited for U.S. Open venues and a proven track record in golf's toughest events, including a victory in the 2006 Players Championship.
Sometimes underappreciated by golf fans, the 45-year-old is ranked ninth in the PGA's all-around category and is a serious threat to contend.
No. 18—Sean O'Hair, United States
The 26-year-old has been improving steadily since joining the tour in 1999 but has really come into his own this season. O'Hair has five top tens in 11 starts in 2009, including a fourth at the Mercedes-Benz Championship and 10th place finishes at Pebble Beach and the Masters.
But it was his second place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he lost a five-stroke, 54-hole lead to Tiger Woods, and his impressive victory five weeks later at the Quail Hollow Championship that served notice that he's someone to watch when golf's best get together.
No. 17—Angel Cabrera, Argentina
The big Argentine is a two-time major champion, backing up his victory in the 2007 U.S. Open with a win in this year's Masters.
Based on his record as a whole in 2009 (five missed cuts in 10 official starts on the PGA and European tours), it would be hard to imagine Cabrera getting two wins away from a grand slam, especially when you consider his atrocious driving statistics, where he ranks 189th in accuracy.
But his Masters win and a 14th-place finish at the Players shows he should never be discounted at golf's major events.
No. 16—Camillo Villegas, Columbia
The South American sensation, known more for his buff bod, Spiderman-like green reading techniques, and matinee idol looks prior to last season, exploded with a pair of wins during the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2008. The results have been a little less spectacular in 2009, with a pair of top tens (Buick Invitational and the WGC-CA Championship) and a T13th at the Masters ranking as his best finishes.
Still, the 27-year-old is an exceptional ball striker (ranks second in ball striking on the PGA Tour) and could contend if the putter cooperates.
No. 15—Retief Goosen, South Africa
The two-time United States Open Champion (2001 and 2004) has had an up and down year. He won for the first time in two seasons at the Transitions Championship in March but has struggled since, including missed cuts at the Masters and the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour's marquee event.
Goosen does know how to win this championship, however, and if you had to have a guy other than Tiger make a four-foot downhill slider on U.S. Open greens to save your life, he's your guy.
No. 14—Steve Stricker, United States
The Wisconsin native recorded his second career win three weeks ago at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and is in solid form heading into the championship. Only an average driver (105th in driving distance), Stricker makes up for it with exceptional iron play and some of the best putting on tour.
Bethpage may be too long for him, but if he gets the putter working, he could hang around.
No. 13—K.J. Choi, South Korea
Choi always seems to save his best for golf's biggest stages. He has seven career PGA wins but only a single top-10 this year, a third-place finish at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles. He did finish 13th at the Memorial in his last start, so he could be rounding into form.
He hits the ball so straight that his game is suited for the U.S. Open test; he could contend.
No. 12—Ernie Els, South Africa
The Big Easy is a two-time U.S. Open winner (1994 and 1997) but hasn't been the same since knee surgery in 2005. His swing still looks as silky smooth as ever, but the putts just don't seem to fall any more.
That being said, he knows how to win majors, and an eighth-place finish at the Memorial shows he may be ready to challenge for a fourth grand slam title.
No. 11—David Toms, United States
The 2001 PGA Champion probably doesn't hit it far enough to win at Bethpage, but he does everything else so well that you have to give him a chance.
One of the tour's best putters, he also leads the tour in driving accuracy, an important stat at any U.S. Open.
Despite not winning in 2009, Toms has been amazingly consistent, with six top tens in 14 starts and a pair of second-place finishes in Hawaii and at the St. Jude last week.
No. 10—Lee Westwood, England
The Englishman hasn't been on form so far in 2009, with only one top 10 in 10 starts (seventh at the Johnny Walker), but the 36-year-old always seems to play well in the U.S. Open, as evidenced by his third-place showing at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Westwood has the power and the all-around game to be a factor at Bethpage. His 29 worldwide victories prove he knows how to win, and a major would be a nice addition to an already impressive résumé.
No. 9—Kenny Perry, United States
The native of Franklin, Ky. sits seventh in the official World Golf Rankings, and high on the list of the best players never to win a major. His last, best chance came at this year's Masters, when he blew a late lead before losing in a playoff to Angel Cabrera.
Despite that loss, Perry has the game (eighth in total driving, second in ball striking) and the mental toughness to win at Bethpage. As he gets closer to 50, Perry's chance to join the list of major champions is fading fast, so he'll be ready and focused.
No. 8—Henrik Stenson, Sweden
The 33-year-old has shown twice in the last three seasons that he can beat the world's best with wins at the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and this year's Players Championship. Stenson challenged twice at majors in 2008, finishing tied for third at the Open Championship and tied for fourth at the PGA.
The sixth-ranked player in the world has more than enough power to be a factor this week, and at 33 and in the prime of his career, he may be ready to take the next step in his career progression. Definitely one to watch.
No. 7—Paul Casey, England
Many casual golf fans would be shocked to learn that Casey is the third-ranked golfer in the world, but his stellar play in 2009 (three wins and six top tens in 12 events) has vaulted him to the heights of the golf world.
He hasn't really contended in a major, with a T6 at the 2004 Masters being his best of three top 10 finishes in 25 career starts, but his victory in the BMW PGA Championship in May proved he could win the big events. He has the form and the all-around game required to be a major champion.
His time could be now.
No. 6—Jim Furyk, United States
While maybe not the longest player off the tee, the 2003 U.S. Open champion drives it so straight, hits his long irons so pure, and putts so well that he's always a contender at the national championship.
Furyk also comes into the week in top form after a strong second-place finish at the Memorial, one of five top 10 finishes in 11 starts this season, including a 10th at the Masters and a fifth at The Players.
In addition to his win in 2003, the Pennsylvania native had back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007, so he obviously loves this event.
No. 5—Sergio Garcia, Spain
Love him or hate him (and in 2002, the Bethpage galleries were probably closer to hate than love), the Spaniard is one of the most talented and successful players in the game and always a threat in the majors.
Despite his well-earned title as the best player in the world without a major, Garcia has an impressive record in the big four with seven top-five finishes in the last five years. Of course, two of those top fives were crushing losses to Padraig Harrington at the 2007 Open Championship and the 2008 PGA.
He finished fourth in 2002 and should be a factor at Bethpage again in 2009.
No. 4—Padraig Harrington, Ireland
The three-time major champion has been off form most of the season as he goes through swing changes. In fact, his only top 10 was a fifth-place finish in the desert at Abu Dhabi in January.
Still, it's hard to discount a man who's won three of the last seven majors played, including back-to-back wins at the Open Championship in 2007 and 2008. Harrington has the all-around game to be a contender at Bethpage, and his mental toughness is second only to Tiger among modern-day pros. He has to regain form at some point, and this week would be as good a time as any.
No. 3—Phil Mickelson, United States
We don't know for sure who will win this year's U.S. Open, but we do know who the crowd's favorite will be. Phil would have been the toast of Long Island even before his wife's cancer diagnosis; his family crisis only deepens those sentiments.
Prior to his forced holiday, Mickelson was having a typically successful Phil season with a pair of wins (Los Angeles and the WGC-CA Championship) and two other top fives (Masters and Quail Hollow). He also has an unbelievable U.S. Open record with four second-place finishes.
The question is, how mentally prepared Lefty will be for the grind of a U.S. Open? If his head is there, he may finally win the one championship that means the most to him and forever erase the memory of the 18th hole collapse at Winged Foot.
No. 2—Geoff Ogilvy, Australia
The Aussie won the 2006 U.S. Open and has a great record in the majors with six top tens in 20 career grand slam events. He's also had magnificent success in the World Golf Championship events, winning the Accenture Match Play twice and the CA Championship once in the last four years.
Ogilvy started the year with a bang by picking up a victory at the Mercedes Championship but has been less than stellar since with just two top tens. Luckily for his fans, one of those top tens came in his last start at the Memorial Tournament, meaning he could be rounding into form at just the right time.
With almost limitless power and a great touch, Ogilvy is a true contender to add a second major championship.
No. 1—Tiger Woods, United States
At most majors in this era, it basically comes down to Tiger Woods versus the field, and most times, Tiger's not a bad choice.
The world No. 1 has a chance at a unique double Open defense this year, being the defending champion after his amazing win at Torrey Pines last June and the winner the last time the tournament was held at Bethpage in 2002.
Only a fool would say he won't do it. Deemed by many to be off form since his return from major reconstructive knee surgery that sidelined him for nine months, the 14-time major champion has two wins and six top tens in six starts and comes in off his most impressive performance of the season at the Memorial.
If he can get off the tee close to the way he did at Jack's event, it's impossible to imagine him losing. Look for another Tiger win, a record-tying fourth U.S. Open, and another big step on the road to Nicklaus' record.