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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

Open Will Be a Game of Show-and-Tell

Els seeks third title in five years, Montgomerie his first major, and most will just be looking for their golf ball.

June 18, 1998|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — It's the normal guessing game here at the Olympic Club, where the U.S. Open spends the rest of the week, complete with the traditional assortment of tests designed to tell us, well, what?

If the idea is to see which player can prevent his golf balls from being blown into the bay, then we'll find that out at the U.S. Open. If we're supposed to see just who can be the most successful at staying out of rough that's longer than a USGA press release, the Open will tell us. If we're looking for someone who is the best at coaxing airborne balls to stop on greens that are as small and round as salad plates, this is where we'll find him.

Then if you're trying to learn which player can stand up to the pressure of winning a major title, with enough pressure to collapse an artery or two, we give you the 98th U.S. Open, which begins today at the storied, wooded, rolling Olympic.

Ernie Els is the defending champion, a title he earned last year at the Congressional in Bethesda, Md., where he held off Colin Montgomerie, Tom Lehman and Jeff Maggert down the stretch. Like everyone else who is daring enough to tackle Olympic, Els is sort of wary.

"Obviously, if you miss the fairway, it's going to be bogey or worse," said Els, who also won the 1994 Open at Oakmont. "But that's expected at the U.S. Open."

Obviously. Because the strength to advance a golf ball that lands in the rough is almost as important as having a parking pass at this place, Els is regarded as one of the favorites. But he has company.

Montgomerie has picked up support because of his ability to hit his irons where he wants and because he can putt.

"I feel very confident coming here and still do," Montgomerie said.

Tom Watson said he favors Montgomerie, but that doesn't mean the red-headed Scot feels any more pressure.

"I suppose I am one of the favorites, especially one that I feel that I have the best chance at," Montgomerie said. "I am looking forward to it, win, lose or draw. I really am."

Meanwhile, the list of contenders is longer than the shaft on Scott McCarron's putter.

Tiger Woods is over his back problems, but many believe he won't be a factor here because there are too many holes on which he can't hit his driver, which means his length off the tee won't be a factor. Of course, Woods doesn't agree.

"I like the challenge," he said. "I like when people say that. It definitely gets me a little revved up. But you also have to understand, you still got to go out there and play the game, whatever the motivational factor is. All that is trying to get me fired up going into the tournament."

Justin Leonard, Lehman, Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, David Duval--they have all been mentioned as potential winners

Duval, who has won five times in the last nine months, thinks enough of Olympic to believe anything is possible, even the chance he might win.

"There aren't really any tricks out there," he said. "It is kind of all in front of you. I think that is a plus.

"I am waiting for them to go out and cut the rough a little bit, but my understanding is they are not going to. I just like it."

The rough is supposed to be at a uniform five inches, or shoe-top high, but there are some places where it's even taller.

In any case, it's a good place to avoid. Olympic plays to 6,797 yards with a par of 70, but most believe par will be a very good score this week.

The $3-million event features a 156-player field with the winner earning $535,000. Who is going to stop swinging long enough to pick it up? Olympic will let us know soon enough.

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