Golf: Kite back and in full swing: Robinson Holloway finds the home team in form for this week's US Open golf championship in New Jersey

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The Independent Online
BEN HOGAN will not be playing in the US Open this year - the 1967 Open at Baltusrol was his last - but the style of championship that the United States Golf Association half-unconsciously developed to fit his game continues, and if all goes according to plan Baltusrol will identify the best player most like him in this week's US Open.

The chances are that the champion will have a lot in common with the winners of the last decade: he will hit the ball straight, putt adequately, have Job's own patience, and he will probably know the words to 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

Although this is the most international US Open yet, Americans still vastly outnumber their foreign peers, and several of their best players are running into form at just the right time.

The defending champion, Tom Kite, said this week that the best way to win the US Open was to win the week before. Kite then emerged as the halfway leader in the Buick Westchester Classic. Despite the back injury which cost him his place in the Masters during a two-month absence in the spring, Kite, 43, has had the best 12 months of his career.

It is the versatility of his game which has helped him emerge as a dominant force. His win at Pebble Beach was secured by a triumphant par 72 in appalling conditions, and he took the first of back-to-back wins this year with a record 35-under-par total at the Bob Hope Classic.

His troublesome back, the first serious injury of his career, still presents problems. Kite now undergoes daily therapy to strengthen the muscles around two herniated discs, and he has nearly returned to his pre-injury level of play.

'I would have been surprised if my game hadn't come back this quickly,' Kite said. 'I was swinging well before I hurt myself, and I didn't have any terribly bad habits to break. The good thing is that I don't have to be totally there to win. Earlier in my career everything had to go just right. But now I can make a couple of silly bogeys and still win.'

Payne Stewart has not won since he defeated Scott Simpson in an 18-hole play-off at Hazeltine for the 1991 title. After a dismal 1992 he told his best friend, Paul Azinger, that not only was he going to win again in 1993, but that he was going to make the Ryder Cup team. 'I thought, hell, how are you going to do that after playing bad for more than a year,' Azinger said. 'But Payne's really poured it on this season.' Although Stewart has yet to win, most recently being denied victory by Azinger's astonishing bunker shot last weekend, he has been in serious contention nine times this year, finishing in the top five in six of his last eight tournaments.

Azinger himself may be ready to win his first major. The leading money winner this year, he is in control from tee to green, is putting beautifully, and tends to produce his best golf when under the greatest pressure.

Corey Pavin, like Stewart, was rendered an also-ran last week by Azinger, picking up his second consecutive runner's-up cheque. Pavin has been one of the tour's most accurate strikers this year, and few players can match his ability to shape a shot to a situation.

Just before Pavin lost to Azinger by a stroke, he lost to Scott Simpson by a stroke. Simpson's success in US Opens is the inevitable by-product of the USGA's severe course set-ups. Since winning at Olympic in 1987 Simpson has been in contention for every US Open. Last year at Pebble Beach he was in a good position entering the final round, but shot an 88 which caused him to seek new coaching. He now says that his game is better than ever.

Two of last year's successes now have question marks over them. Although Fred Couples won in Florida this year his golf oflate has veered from the hideous to the sporadically brilliant. Also, the former Masters winner is suited neither by game nor temperament to the US Open. John Cook had an uncharacteristically slow start to the year, but says that an overhaul of his swing undertaken in April has restored his game to competitive readiness.

There are several young Americans playing well, and the only thing counting against them is lack of experience. Davis Love III leads the list of dark horses, while Lee Janzen, a likely Ryder Cup player, has won twice this year. Dan Forsman, Rocco Mediate, Jeff Maggert, David Edwards, Larry Mize and Gil Morgan are all also in good form.

They may not win, but they are the kind of players likely to be cluttering up the leaderboard throughout the week.