The second major golf tournament of the season, the U.S. Open, tees off Thursday in New York with Masters Champion Phil Mickelson seeking his third straight major title. The tournament also marks Tiger Woods' return following the death of his father in May. Mickelson and Woods will have to conquer several former champions and a tough Winged Foot course to capture the title.
For Tiger Woods, this week is a bittersweet U.S. Open. Woods returns from the longest layoff in his career to join a field of 156 golfers. The world number one player's last event was the Masters, where he finished tied for third despite the distraction of his father Earl's battle with terminal cancer. Earl Woods died May 3 and Tiger took six weeks off the tour to mourn his father's death. Tiger says returning to the golf course brought back many memories.
"Any time you take a time off and you start back you always work on your fundamentals, right? Your grip, your posture, your stance, your alignment," he explained. "Well, that's what I learned from Dad. So from that standpoint it was certainly a little bit more difficult than I had expected. It was also one of the great times too, to remember and to think back on all the lessons - life lessons that Dad taught me through the game of golf."
Woods has taken long breaks before, for knee surgery in 2002 and to get married, and both times he has returned to win his first tournament back. Woods says that part of the reason he took another long break was his father's advice.
"No, Dad was always adamant that whenever you are ready to play, play. If you are not ready, don't play," he said. "If you are not mentally ready to play then you are not going to be there. So he was always adamant throughout my entire career as a golfer to take more time off. So for this stretch I think he certainly would have approved."
Phil Mickelson is ranked second in the world behind Woods, and captured his third major tournament title in April by winning the Masters for the second time. Previously, Mickelson won the PGA in 2005 and the Masters in 2004. The American says that the Winged Foot course will require precise hitting to win this week.
"This course has more subtleties than just about any course I have ever played," he noted. "Little rolls in the greens. Little rolls in the fairway. Little fall offs on the edge of the greens. And learning those particular nuances on some of these greens required a lot of time and that is why I spent a lot more time here than other preparation days in the past."
Defending champion Michael Campbell of New Zealand is almost overshadowed by the drama surrounding Woods and Mickelson. The 37-year-old Kiwi followed his Open win at Pinehurst with a victory at the HSBC World match play championship last year.
However, Campbell has struggled this season, with his best finish being a tie for fifth place at the British Masters in May.
Campbell says he feels the responsibility of a defending champion, especially to players in his home country.
"Jack Nicklaus sent me a hand-written letter, saying 'Michael, now you have got new responsibilities as a major winner to promote this beautiful game of golf in your homeland country, New Zealand, and also throughout the world.' So I've decided to take a stranglehold of the whole situation, and hopefully make a change," he said. "And in about 15 years time when I am sitting back in my rocking chair to see 20 guys [from New Zealand] playing in the U.S. Open instead of two. That's my ultimate dream, I think, once I retire form this game."
To defend his title, Campbell will have to stop an all-star field, including two-time champions Ernie Els and Retief Goosen of South Africa and Lee Janzen of the United States. History is not on Campbell's side - since 1991, only Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen have finished better than 40th in defending their title.
World number two Vijay Singh of Fiji and former champions Jim Furyk and Corey Pavin of the United States will also be among those battling the 6,642-meter West Course layout.
This is the fifth time Winged Foot has hosted the U.S. Open. The last time was in 1984, when Fuzzy Zoeller of the United States beat Australian Greg Norman in a playoff. Zoeller took home $94,000 for the win. This week's winner takes home $1,225,000.