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US Open Golf Championship Looks to be Wide Open

Phil Mickelson signs autographs after a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, June 14, 2011

The 111th U.S. Open golf championship is being played this week at Congressional Country Club in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. For the first time in many years, the event, which begins Thursday, is being contested without American Tiger Woods and with foreigners holding all the major golf titles.

There are 156 golfers vying for the U.S. Open, which has a total purse of $7.5 million. About half the field was exempt from qualifying, while others - both professionals and amateurs - went through sectional and regional qualifying, as long as they had an up-to-date sanctioned handicap of no more than 1.4 strokes.

The defending champion is Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who won the title last year when the event was played at Pebble Beach, California. The last time the U.S. Open was played at Congressional was in 1997, when South African Ernie Els won the title.

US Open defending champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland at a press conference at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, June 14, 2011
US Open defending champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland at a press conference at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, June 14, 2011

McDowell is currently ranked seventh in the world and said he will try his best to repeat.

"2010 was a great season for me, a lot of defining moments, the win at Pebble being the highlight for sure, and the Ryder Cup and winning a couple more times again in 2010. It's been a lot of fun, so I'm looking forward obviously to defending this week and doing my best to win it back," he said.

McDowell said that while each of golf's four majors has a different layout, the U.S. Open is typically the most difficult.

"The U.S. Open golf course tends to be really intimidating, really tough, especially when it's up here in the northeast, in the New Yorks and New Jerseys, and up here in my first time to Washington," he said. "Good crowds, big crowds, and everyone gets pretty excited about it."

For the first time since 1994, each of the four major championships is held by a golfer from outside the United States. South African Charl Schwartzel won The Masters in April, his countryman Louis Oosthuizen won last year's British Open, and German Martin Kaymer captured the 2010 PGA Championship.

The last American to hold a major was fifth-ranked Phil Mickelson, who won the 2010 Masters for his fourth major title. Mickelson said he is not worried, that there are a lot of young U.S. players who are starting to shine.

"We have a plethora of great players coming up, but it's obvious that world golf as a whole has become so much stronger, and that international and European golf has become world class and top notch and some of the best players in the world, and certainly on the rankings right now," said Mickelson. "So although international golf has really taken off, American golf is still in very good shape."

Kaymer, at No. 3, and England's Lee Westwood, at No. 2, both recently held the top ranking. Luke Donald of England took over the top spot last month. But he has not won a major and that's his goal.

"In simple terms, being No. 1 ranked means you've outperformed the rest of the golfers in a two-year period," said Donald. "You've played more consistently. In that regards, it's very gratifying. And obviously, you win a tournament, you're better over a four-day period. But winning is a big deal, and winning majors is a big deal."

There are no clear favorites at this U.S. Open. And Woods, who won it in 2000, 2002 and 2008, is not competing because of knee and ankle injuries. This is the first time the former No. 1 is missing the U.S. Open since he was 18 in 1995, when he had not yet turned professional.

Mickelson said the dynamics in his absence certainly will be a little different.

"I've always felt as though Tiger has helped bring out some of my best golf over the years, and even though my record against him may not be the best, it's helped me achieve a higher level that I may not have ever achieved had he not been pushing me," he said. "And so the challenge now is, without him playing his best or even competing - like he's not this week - is pushing myself to achieve a level of play that is in there without him forcing me to do so. So in that sense it might be a little more difficult."

Mickelson has five second-place finishes at the U.S. Open and last year he placed fourth. So, like the majority of the golfers in the field, he hopes his game will be good enough this week to earn his first U.S. Open championship.