PINEHURST, N.C. — The 105th U.S. Open starts today at Pinehurst.
If it ends anything like the 104th, which ended with kicking and screaming, expect protest signs and a players' march on U.S. Golf Assn. headquarters.
The week started respectfully enough, with tributes to Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash four months after winning the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Now, though, before the first ball has been teed up, many golfers in this year's field of 156 are starting to fear that this could be Shinnecock II, a nightmare sequel to last year's U.S. Open, at which players averaged 78.72 on the final day.
To sum it up, golfers basically thought they were being played for fools on a burned-out, tricked-up track.
"I think Pinehurst will be tougher than Shinnecock," defending champion Retief Goosen said.
Pinehurst No. 2, a classic Donald Ross design, ranks in the pantheon of classic courses. It is par 70, measures 7,214 yards and is famous for its crowned greens.
Whether Pinehurst becomes another crime scene remains to be seen.
The USGA was supposed to have drawn valuable lessons from last year's final round/debacle, during which getting a marble to stop on a coffee table might have been easier than sticking a ball to a green.
"We learned from it; it's not what we wanted to occur," USGA Executive Director David Fay said of that final-round fiasco.
Early indications, though, are that Pinehurst may be the toughest bear since Jack Nicklaus.
Phil Mickelson played a practice round and announced that, if the rain stays away, "quite a bit over par would be the score I would anticipate winning."
Vijay Singh, the world's No. 2 player, is monitoring course conditions by the minute.
"It's very fair at the moment, but it's very, very difficult," he said Wednesday. "But it could get on the edge very quickly. If they don't watch it, it's going to get over the edge in the heartbeat."
The problem is that no rain has fallen this week to soften the course, and the forecast for the weekend is relatively dry.
Singh thinks the USGA lost control of Shinnecock and doesn't want to see it happen again, even though you could argue that watching the world's best players struggle to break par makes for better television and newspaper reading.
Walter Driver, president of the U.S. championship committee, said players might be overreacting.
"We don't intend to set ourselves up for criticism," he said. "What we intend to do is have as good a U.S. Open as we can, and we think we have all the seeds in place."
The course conditions, no matter how difficult, will be the same for all, from Singh to the sectional qualifiers.
Here's a look at some of the contenders:
* Tiger Woods: Winner of nine majors, including this year's Masters, and the only player in the field with a chance to win golf's Grand Slam -- all four majors in the same calendar year. Woods this week moved back to No. 1 in the world golf rankings, but he says, in press accounts, that he's still not getting the respect he deserves.
"I read some of the stuff," Woods said. "It looks like I have no game left, so I might as well quit and retire. I won a major this year, that's pretty good."
* Phil Mickelson: He turns 35 today, has finished third in three U.S. Opens and seemingly has the short game to save par around some of Pinehurst's unforgiving greens.
* Singh: His thoughts on Pinehurst: "I think it's going to be one hell of a test."
* Stewart Cink: He hasn't won a major but has gone 295 holes without a three-putt, a statistic that instantly qualifies here for contender status.
* Chris DiMarco: He has lost in a playoff in the last two majors -- to Singh at the PGA and to Woods at the Masters -- and finished tied for ninth at last year's U.S. Open.
* Sergio Garcia: He's coming off a win at the Booz Allen Classic and, at 25, may be ready to break through for his first major win.
"I've just got to wait for it," he said, "just got to give it time
* Ernie Els: He has to be considered at any major, although his final-round 80 last year at Shinnecock should cause some concerns.
* Goosen: The two-time Open champion has the patience and temperament to stay in contention in these grind-it-out affairs. When all bogey was breaking loose last year at Shinnecock, Goosen had 11 one-putts on the final day and made a sensational sand save on the par-three 17th to pull away from Mickelson, who double-bogeyed the hole.
"I prefer this type of golf really to a golf course that you know you need to shoot 26 under par to win," Goosen said.
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Highest winning scores at the U.S. Open in the last 50 years, including average score per round (*won in playoff):
*--* Score Avg Winner Course Year 293 73.3 Julius Boros Country Club, Brookline, Mass. 1963 290 72.5 Jack Nicklaus Pebble Beach 1972 287 71.8 Jack Fleck Olympic Club, San Francisco 1955 287 71.8 Hale Irwin Winged Foot, Mamaroneck, N.Y. 1974 287 71.8 Lou Graham* Medinah, Ill. 1975 285 71.3 Andy North Cherry Hills, Englewood, Colo. 1978 285 71.3 Tom Kite Pebble Beach 1992