This US Open is Tiger Woods' to lose. This is the message the American broadcast community is relentlessly pounding out at Olympic Club. There is nothing like Tiger-fever to boost viewing figures and suck punters through the door. It is working. The sold-out signs are up in San Francisco.
The call is delivered with the absolute certainty of the zealot. You can see the appeal; golfing superstar, global icon, once thought lost to the game, emerges from the post-scandal wasteland to reassert his supremacy. The mythical pursuit of 18 major championships, the number acquired by the great Jack Nicklaus, is back on, and powered not least by the statistical symmetry offered by the numbers 14 and 15.
Fourteen majors have passed since Woods claimed his 14th at Torrey Pines four years ago. Each one has been won by a different golfer. That chip a fortnight ago in the final round at the Memorial Championship and the red-shirted uppercuts that followed have convinced believers that the 112th US Open, returning to San Francisco after a 14-year absence, is about Woods re-establishing golfing hegemony. The 15th different winner in this present sequence will be Woods, claiming his 15th major 15 tournaments after his last.
The idea certainly appeals to the man himself. He saw in his win at Memorial, the 73rd PGA Tour success, a reprise of old certainties, one that could not have been otherwise given the command he had of the tools in his bag. "I went into Augusta [following victory at Bay Hill] and did not feel comfortable hitting the ball up. And I got back into a lot of my old patterns. That's what made playing Muirfield so nice. I had those shots and I was doing it the correct way. And I had compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun," Woods said.
The problem with any numbers game is the potential of the random variable to deliver the unintended consequence, which on this course can happen at almost every turn. Only four players have returned under-par scores in the four US Open championships held at Olympic. And in each of those tournaments the would-be winner has fallen at the death.
History is telling us that hubris has no place at America's oldest athletic club. Arnold Palmer led by seven with nine to play in 1966 yet frittered the advantage to gift victory to Billy Casper. Eleven years earlier Ben Hogan saw Jack Fleck, of whom the great man had never heard, claim two birdies in the final four holes to force a play-off and take the crown.
Tom Watson in 1987 and Payne Stewart in 1998 were victims of similarly improbable storylines, proving that the one constant at this course is caprice. Lee Westwood reckons he has never encountered a place with such goofy characteristics. Never mind the endless, tree-lined dog-legs, narrow, cambered fairways, mad elevations, small, undulating greens and the longest hole in championship golf, all 670 yards of the par-5 16th, there is mystery with which to contend, too.
Lee Janzen fell six shots behind Stewart after bogeys at two of the opening three holes in 1998. He was on his way back to the tee at the 5th and, in all likelihood, out of the tournament when his ball, declared lost, fell from a tree. He advanced up the fairway, chipped in for par and went on to deny the people's champion. The point here is not to rubbish the idea of Woods winning, only to ridicule the notion of certainty.
The winner will doubtless conform to the US Open clichs that demand the champion displays precision hitting, masterful course management and a laser touch around the greens. The usual candidates present themselves. Come on down Luke Donald. The world no.1 does not possess a distinguished record in this event, yet accepts the logic that links his game with success here.
"I've really progressed in terms of getting my ball striking back to a more consistent level," he said. "You just have to keep it in play, hit a lot of greens, and obviously when you're out of position, miss it to the wrong spots and be smart about your game. I feel like I am good at plodding my way around a golf course. And I suppose at a US Open you have to plod away even more than probably the other majors."
Westwood is routinely included among the favourites at all the major events. His critics point to frailty with the putter, yet he arrived in San Francisco after a 40th tournament victory, claimed by a winning margin of five shots. "Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses," he said. "The putting issue gets on my nerves a bit but I can't be doing much wrong shooting 19 under at a tough course in Sweden. I putted well there, my game's in decent shape, so we will see. I can only come into tournaments and play as well as possible. After that, it's out of my hands."
If the numbers stack up well for Woods here, at least in the eyes of the mystics, they do not offer much comfort to Rory McIlroy. Only two golfers have ever retained the US Open, and none in their 20s has finished in the top two in the four tournaments held at the Olympic Club. Despite a return to the front page of the leaderboard in Memphis last week there is still a sense that McIlroy is battling the inevitable doubts borne of three successive missed cuts.
As his unveiling before a packed baseball house on Tuesday night as a celebrity pitcher at the San Francisco Giants showed, McIlroy retains a powerful hold on the American imagination. He is the first pin-up of golf after Tiger Woods and brings a lot of game to this course. A win for either would fill another compelling chapter in the history of this tournament. But this is a course that gives the outsider a chance. Prepare to be surprised.
Ones to watch
A god on the West Coast. A total of 18 of his 40 career victories have come on this seaboard. Five times a runner-up at this event, there would be no more popular winner. And as they say in these parts, he likes his chances.
After 10 years on tour without a win Jason Duffner can hardly miss. In his past four outings he has two victories and a runner-up spot. Has yet to break the top-30 in five US Open starts. Who cares? Went close at last year's US PGA. Could get home here.
All eyes are on Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old man-boy from Beijing. Four years at the David Leadbetter academy have given him a Florida twang and an impressive grasp of the golfing lexicon. He can't win it, can he? Tissues at the ready.
Selected tee-off times (US unless stated; all times BST)
Starting at first hole:
9.29pm L Westwood (Eng), L Donald (Eng), R McIlroy (NIrl)
9.40pm S Garcia (Sp), G McDowell (NIrl), J Furyk
Starting at ninth hole:
3.33pm T Woods, B Watson, P Mickelson
4.17pm R Karlsson (Swe), R Rock (Eng), B Estes
9.25pm M Kaymer (Ger), J Rose (Eng), H Mahan
9.36pm I Poulter (Eng), M Kuchar, S Stricker
9.58pm D Johnson, R Ishikawa (Japan), R FowlerReuse content