Westwood is ready to enjoy the beach

Woods will be the centre of attention, but England's US Open challenge is stronger than ever
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The Independent Online

When the 110th US Open Championship tees off here today a wave of storylines will threaten to crash all over this most picturesque of settings on the Monterey Peninsula. Certain celebrity websites may not agree, but there is so much more to grab the attention than the continuing downfall – or otherwise – of the most talked about adulterer on the planet.

Of course, Tiger Woods will be central to the plot, the very openings of it anyway. Having created his major miracle at Pebble 10 years ago with that record 15-stroke victory, Woods always was destined to stamp another mark on America's most famous links.

Alas, for those interested solely in his pursuit of immortality for something other than infamy, the fear is the rust and ridicule will make it another humiliating week of contrasts for Woods. There have been positive noises of a return to form. He will need to if he is to compete for a 15th major.

Quite rightly, Phil Mickelson will start in many as places as favourite. This place plainly favours short-game specialists and if the Masters confirmed anything it is that Mickelson has no peer when it comes to the miraculous up-and-down. Considering the left-hander has five runner-up US Open placings to his name, there is no need to dangle added incentives. But here's one, anyway. Depending where Woods finishes, Mickelson could even finish third and usurp Woods as world No 1 come Sunday.

But Mickelson, who turned 40 yesterday, never has been the straightest and even though he plans to keep the driver in his bag his erratic long-game offers hope to the rest. And the English challenge, in particular, is positively brimming in anticipation.

Never has the country gone into a major with four members of the world's top 10 and never has it gone into a US Open with 13 representatives. While Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey are the quartet with the status, there is a supporting cast crammed with interesting tales. From Matthew Richardson, an unknown 25-year-old from Worcester labouring on the nether tiers of the American circuit, to Simon Khan, the unlikely hero of the BMW PGA Championship, the romance racks up. Mention should also be made to the sole Welshman, the brilliant putter who is Rhys Davies, and a trio of Ulsterman, of course led by the impressive Rory McIlroy.

But Westwood stands out. He partners Woods and Ernie Els in the first two rounds and it says everything about his confidence that he greeted the draw with a shrug of the shoulders and a grin. "I always seem to be playing with Lee nowadays," said Woods. Familiarity has plainly bred contentment for Westwood as he showed when "beating" Woods by seven strokes in Turnberry's first two rounds last year. That was the major he could and should have won. Yet his top-three displays at the USPGA and the Masters proves that he regarded this near miss as a stepping stone rather than a boulder around his neck.

"Lee has everything it takes to win at Pebble," is the way Tony Jacklin sees it. From the only European winner of the US Open in the last 85 years, the 65-year-old's view must be respected; as much his doubts. "The only question is whether he has what it takes to close the deal. The US Open is a brutal examination, where the only enjoyment to be gleaned is your ability to cope with it."

Westwood, however, calls this "my favourite course in the world". It's all about fairways and greens, although that is a stupendously simplistic description. There is a rich variety which will favour the shot-makers. At a little over 7,000 yards, it is no bomber's paradise either, leaving those such as Donald rubbing their cultured hands. The word is the par-three seventh will become the first hole in modern major times to be played over less than 100 yards. That is a neat way of emphasising the uniqueness this layout.

But it's tough, too. With the rough shaved down on the edge of the course, the beach very much comes into play and, with the forecast set fair, the small greens could verge on the unplayable as they firm up. Mickelson warned as much and all but pleaded with the organisers to take measures.

What a shame it would be if this tournament became purely a war of attrition. What a shame if the 60-year-old Tom Watson – the winner here 28 years ago – did not enjoy at least a few more moments in the sun; if in the company of McIlroy at 21 and Ryo Ishikawa at 18, the old boy could not show them how it's done. Naturally, Watson will do exactly that and Pebble will have yet another delicious subplot. Yes, the best-looking stage in all of sport has the performers and the script it deserves.

The English frontrunners...

Lee Westwood

WR: 3 Age: 37

Found the secret of peaking in the majors and is surely a champion in waiting. Only concern is his short-game.

Odds 12-1

Luke Donald

WR: 6 Age: 32

Hit form at just the right time and has the accuracy required. But does he boast the killer instinct?

Odds 12-1

Ian Poulter

WR: 8 Age: 34

Out of form, but has been working with David Leadbetter this week. If his swing returns his short game gives him a chance.

Odds 80-1

Paul Casey

WR: 9 Age: 32

Seemingly unsuited to the US Open but his 66 at Oakmont three years ago underlines his ability to play anywhere.

Odds 66-1