Six players to watch at Bethpage Black not named Tiger Woods

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I’ve meant to write a preview of the U.S. Open this week as it returns to Bethpage Black in New York for the first time since 2002 but lately have just been too busy to find the time to sit down and organize my thoughts on it.

So I guess the rain during Thursday’s opening round was good for something, eh? Not that any of you other golf enthusiasts who sought to watch the full day’s worth of coverage can do anything with that… nor can I.

Alas, play was suspended shortly after it began and it has therefore allowed me to step in and finish my preview before much golf has been played.

Entering this year’s Open, the 109th of its kind, all the talk is about the World’s No. 1 Tiger Woods. Whether it be his defending champion status after his unbelievable performance last year at Torrey or his win two weeks ago at the Memorial (or just his overall popularity) we are all once again subjected to the Woods media love fest.

Well as much as I am a fan of His Royalty, someone has to be the voice of reason. So that’s why I’m giving you six players to watch, six players who will win this championship — and yes, none of them are named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.

1. Henrik Stenson — Played brilliantly in his win at the Player’s Championship and is clearly at the height of his game. Has the length, ball flight, putting and mental fortitude to get it done.

2.Geoff Ogilvy — Not only has he won a U.S. Open before, he’s won one in the state of New York (Shinnecock). Combine the previous experience with a player currently ranked 5th in the World, one who has two wins already this year on tour and 2nd in FedEx Cup points and you have a pretty good contender. To top it off he’s 32 years old, exactly the average age of the tournament’s champions over the last quarter century.

3. Ian Poulter — After he famously proclaimed himself as the only rival for Tiger Woods on the tour’s current landscape, Poulter has yet to claim a title on U.S. soil. On the positive side, he is still rather young being in his mid-30’s and has been knocking on the door. Finishing 2nd at last year’s Open Championship and another top five this year at the Player’s shows he has the game for the major championships. His attitude about playing when the pressure is at its highest shows he has the mental toughness to get it done. Watch out.

4. Sergio Garcia — Probably playing the worst out of anybody on this list but also the guy with the most talent. After a great year last year in which he won the Player’s and had three runner up finishes down the stretch including at the PGA Championship — Garcia rose to No. 2 ranking in the World.

Well, he hasn’t been able to continue his ’08 momentum — yet. Garcia points to personal life issues distracting him from his career and after hearing him talk at the press conferences entering the tournament this week, he seems more mentally prepared for any tournament this year.

At 29, nearing 30, Garcia is still without his first major but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. He now has two second place finishes to Padraig Harrington and with each has improved his mental toughness as seen in his performance at Oakland Hills last year where he overcame a rain delay and three shot lead to surge ahead and take hold of the lead outright. He fell to a superb back nine performance by the aforementioned Harrington.

Despite his current poor play in the ’09 season, there are many reasons to like Garcia this week. First is the course. Back in 2002, Garcia came very close to winning at Bethpage, ultimately finishing 4th to Woods. That was at the tender age of 22. The course will play extremely long this week so as perhaps the best striker from tee to green in the game, Garcia fits it well.

Then there’s the whole weather scenario. Garcia’s best major has always been the British, well what’s more British than rain, wind, big bunkers and fescue?

Finally, the fact that he has absolutely no one picking him and therefore no pressure, I think he’s an excellent sleeper choice to get it done this week.

5. Lee Westwood — Yes, another European and another sleeper pick. Westwood has a game that suits the U.S. Open very well — par golf. He drives the ball extremely consistently and because of his length and ability to hit fairways he’s not going to penalize himself.

He’s also been there before. Let’s not forget he was leading down the stretch last year at Torrey before faltering late and had he made a putt on the 72nd hole last year we would’ve had a three way playoff on Monday. He didn’t but I still believe he’s a great choice for winning this week.

6. Camillo Villegas — Another young, talented player perhaps hitting his stride. He’s made significant strides over the last 18 months as he’s moved into the top-10 World Golf rankings. Also has the type of game that will succeed at a long course like Bethpage.

One of these six players will be hosting the silver trophy on Monday (or maybe even Tuesday with the current weather forecast), I guarantee it.

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