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No Front-Runner to Tee Off in Upcoming U.S. Open

The U.S. Open kicks off Thursday at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., with more uncertainty about the eventual outcome since Tiger Woods made his professional major championship debut a winning one in 1997.

Just one year ago, on a day when Woods and fellow golf superstars Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els each had the golden opportunity to add a silver U.S. Open trophy to their major championship collections, it was a somewhat obscure man from Northern Ireland, Grahame McDowell, who summoned the fortitude to claim the cup and start his own major collection.

McDowell’s triumph has been followed by other first-time major championship winners in the British Open (Louis Oosthuizen), PGA Championship (Martin Kaymer) and Masters (Charl Schwartzel).

It’s not the first time all four of golf’s biggest prizes have been held by men who had never before experienced major success, but the current state of the game -- and especially the one possessed by Woods -- makes the foolhardy effort of predicting a champion for this week’s event that much more difficult.

The absence of the world’s now-former top ranked golfer is the major story line at the start of championship week. "I am extremely disappointed that I won't be playing in the U.S. Open, but it's time for me to listen to my doctors and focus on the future," Woods said.

Woods, who has battled injury amid issues surrounding sexual affairs that led to a divorce from his wife, will miss the event for the first time in his career.

Woods has only played nine holes (in 42 strokes) since he limped to a fourth place finish at the Masters in April. He produced one of the greatest feats in sports history by winning the 2008 U.S. Open (in a 19-hole playoff) on a broken leg.

He hasn’t won a major title since.

Clearly his injuries today are more severe than just a few years ago. "I was hopeful that I could play, but if I did, I risk further damage to my left leg. My knee and Achilles tendon are not fully healed."

Woods, who has battled injury amid issues surrounding sexual affairs that led to a divorce from his wife,

Even if Woods had been able to tee it up on the 7,574 yard Par 71 course, there’s little in his recent form to suggest the once-dominant player would appear. Woods is no longer ranked inside the world’s top 10 and his once magical short game seems to have disappeared. He’s missing putts that his legions of fans have always seen him make.

A victory this week would have been widely celebrated as a return to excellence by one of the game’s greatest performers, but now the golf world waits on when he will next step onto the first tee. "It's been a frustrating and difficult year, but I'm committed to my long-term health," Woods said. "I want to thank the fans for their encouragement and support. I am truly grateful and will be back playing when I can."

McDowell might have been considered a favorite given his stirring victory a year ago at Pebble Beach and subsequent play for the victorious Europeans in the Ryder Cup. But a disastrous final round at the Players Championship last month and a third round 81 at the Wales Open earlier in June clearly shows that McDowell’s game is far from the brilliance he showed a year ago.

The course is also a bigger, broader test than was found at Pebble Beach. “Tough to say at this point if the golf course suits my game,” McDowell said after playing Congressional for the first time last month. “It was a tough golf course that played every ounce of its yards this morning.”

Those challenges could suit Mickelson’s game and he’s a proven U.S. Open player with five runner-up finishes. But he lacks the victory that would vault him up a notch in the record books as an all-time great.

The popular left-hander has one win this year and has had three solid, if unspectacular, tournaments since he finished tied-27th as the favorite in Augusta.

The last time the USGA held its premier event at Congressional was 1997 with Els taking home his second U.S. Open trophy. He’s won only one major since -- the 2002 British Open -- and his play has been dreadful this year with no top 10 finishes in 10 PGA Tour starts.

There is undoubtedly a competitive fire that still burns within Els. But any summer success he finds in suburban Maryland will likely not happen at Congressional, rather at another nearby club where the South African is headlining a fundraiser for autism research.

Ben Els, 8, was diagnosed with autism five years ago and has become the focal point for his dad. “Every once in a while, a cause resonates so profoundly that we need to respond,” Els said in a press release promoting the event. “Autism is such a cause for me because I know first-hand what families go through.”

The father-son connection is always a powerful story line at the U.S. Open. Once again, the final round is set for Father’s Day. Usually, though, it’s the winner’s father that shares in the celebration. Given Els’ ties to Congressional and the efforts he’s made for his son, a third U.S. Open victory would be particularly poignant.

The only certainty of this week is that no matter who wins, the golfing calendar will once again provide us one of the best traditions in all sport, a Father’s Day final round for the U.S. Open.