If the build-up to this year's US Open has confirmed anything, it is merely that the game revolves around Tiger Woods with a sun-like dependency. Following a full month of "will he or won't he?" recuperate from knee surgery in time to show up at Torrey Pines this week, there can be no doubting that Woods is the game's life force. When he decides to call it a day and stops turning, then so too, in all probability, will the world of golf.
Naturally not everyone subscribes to this theory, although most do, and they form the majority who see the obvious dangers in such an over-reliance. Take this from Dan Jenkins, the doyen of American golf writers, who let loose on the subject last week and, as is his brilliant way, so spoke up for many of the cowering observers.
"The best thing about the majors is that they're important no matter what," said the Golf Digest Illustrated columnist. "They make more sense when Jack Fleck doesn't win, but they're still historic and important. I don't give a shit whether Tiger recovers from his knee or not, frankly. You'd think he was the only guy who ever had a knee, a baby, or a dead father."
You would never find a fellow professional uttering such a sacrilege (not, that is, if they were keen to avoid a Tiger grudge that would last longer than that of your average Corleone). Yet it is surely unarguable that a good number of the unfulfilled multimillionaires making their way out to San Diego today would agree with Jenkins.
In fact they could take the bemoaning that step further, for they cannot win this week whatever happens. Imagine it: you turn up at what just may prove to be the toughest major course in history (7,600 yards long and every single hole a monster), play the four rounds of your life and what do they all whisper – if not yell out in extra-large-type headlines – when you pick up the Championship trophy? "Well done and all that. But you wouldn't have won it if Tiger had been fit."
The guardians of the record books may as well stick an asterisk next to your name. And therein lies the beauty andthe beast of Tiger; even his fallibility can be a distraction
But again, not everyone subscribes to this theory. Take Padraig Harrington, who would give about as much thought to that damned asterisk as he did to the one that some dolts insisted on appending when the Irishman capitalised on Sergio Garcia's supposed capitulation at Carnoustie last year. Yes, the Open champion has a way of coping with all the talk, all the hype, all the Tiger this and the Tiger that – and that is to ignore it.
"The battle very much is with me," said this complex soul. "You just can't start worrying what Tiger Woods is up to. If somebody else has a good week then they might be the best player in the world that week. A guy playing well versus Tiger playing average is going to win, as it has been proved. So worry about one player – and one player only – yourself."
Wise words. Yet on the face of it, Harrington has plenty to worry about himself. Going into this weekend's Stanford St Jude Championship in Memphis, his form was such that he looked about as likely to break Europe's 38-year barren run in the US Open as he did of being appointed as the chief spokesman in the Campaign for Brevity.But, typically, Harrington hasan explanation.
"Right from about 16 years of age, I've never been able to string any results or form together in May, never," said the 36-year-old. "I've won one tournament in 20 years in that period. It used to be the time I did exams when I was an amateur, so it was a case of shut away the clubs and get down to some studying. It would be interesting to go back through my records at Wentworth, and tournaments like that, I'vealways struggled.
"Also, at the start of the year you're keen and then you get into this period of time in the year when you get all mixed up in what you are trying to do and you don't have the same clarity of focus. But hopefully the US Open, I'm building up for it. I don't feel like there is anything particularly out of shape. I just need to be a bit more trusting with myself and work on my concentration."
In Padraig-speak that means he is up for it. Or actually it doesn't. Which means that he is. "When I am confident I don't tend to do well for some reason," he reasoned. "But when I'm not confident or perhaps struggling a little bit, I tend to come out and do really well. Yeah, I tend to play better when I am on my lowest form, rather than on my best form." They always say you have to be slightly mad to win a US Open. Then look no further than Padraig. Tiger or no Tiger.
Euro stars in with a shout
Many will regard it as laughable to believe the fiery Spaniard will not boil over on the lightning Californian greens. He displayed new-found confidence with the putter in victory at The Players Championship last month. The short-game guru Stan Utley could just have worked his finest miracle.
Showed his – by now – legendary recovery powers to bounce back from a torrid run of form to finish second at last week's Memorial. The Englishman has everything that a professional needs to win a US Open, apart perhaps from the winning touch. This could be the week that changes that.
Miguel Angel Jiminez
"The Mechanic" has a US Open runner-up placing to his popular name, yet what stands the Spaniard in even better stead is his form at Wentworth when he prevailed in last month's BMW PGA Championship. Time is against the 44-year-old. But very little else seems to be when he is on a roll like this.