So is it going to be Ernie Els or Tiger Woods or Colin Montgomerie or Mark O'Meara or Fred Couples or somebody like them who is going to win the U.S. Open? It's hardly sporting to do it this way. Sure, it's easy to go with the favorites, the players with major titles or major games, but that's not the most compelling way to choose a champion.
For instance, who could have seen Andy North in 1978 (and again in 1985!) or Scott Simpson in 1987 or Corey Pavin in 1995 or Steve Jones in 1996?
As it turns out, for every Els or Raymond Floyd or Hale Irwin, there is a North or Jones.
So instead of going the obvious way, let's follow a slightly different path and see where it takes us next week at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, where the 98th U.S. Open will be played.
Here are five players to watch. Maybe one of them will remove himself from golf's undercard forever.
* Jim Furyk: Sure, he has a funny-looking swing, but there's nothing funny about the way the 28-year-old plays majors. Furyk, fourth at this year's Masters, tied for fifth at the 1997 U.S. Open, was fourth at the British Open and tied for sixth at the PGA.
He is also playing well right now--second at the Colonial and fourth at the Memorial.
* Lee Westwood: Europe's rising star, he has won his last two events on the European PGA Tour. What's more, he flew from England to play the Buick Classic this week at Westchester, obviously not as intimidated by the length of the trans-Atlantic flight as the players sitting out this week to get ready for the Open at Olympic, so very far from New York, all the way over here on the West Coast.
Westwood, 25, laughed at questions about the travel distances. Maybe he was thinking about all the frequent flier miles he's racking up.
* Stuart Appleby: This Australian won last weekend at the Kemper, his second victory, which many consider a confidence-boosting figure, pointing to Justin Leonard's victory at last year's Kemper, followed by his victory at the British Open.
Appleby, 27, is a good thinker, not to mention a good long-iron player. He won at the Kemper with a three-iron from 240 yards to a blind green into a stiff breeze from a sidehill lie and got the ball to stop 15 feet from the hole after aiming at a hospitality tent. He two-putted to win by one.
* Scott Hoch: He was the guy who lost to Appleby, but still felt OK enough to applaud that three-iron into the wind. Hoch, 42, is accurate enough off the tee to make it at Olympic and clearly a good enough shotmaker.
Last year, Hoch tied for 10th at the U.S. Open and tied for sixth at the PGA. He tied for 16th this year at the Masters.
* Jeff Maggert: With three top 10s in the U.S. Open in the last four years, you have to say he's persistent. Maggert, 34, didn't exactly cover himself in glory the way he staggered home at Congressional last year, but he did finish fourth anyway. He also was third at the PGA.
This year, Maggert has two seconds and a fourth and he might be just the guy to find his way out of the rough at Olympic and win his first major.
Then again, maybe not.
ELS HURTS BACK
Els played nine holes at the Buick Classic, then withdrew because of back pain. Whether he will be able to defend his title at the Open depends on how he feels.
Els said he had back spasms Wednesday night and that his back was getting worse as Thursday's first round went on.
"When I turn my back I feel it, and at impact it's really bad. I'm hitting it only 230 yards with a big slice," he said.
Els returned to his home in Florida, and will consult with a doctor who has been treating Davis Love III and Couples.
"If it doesn't get better I can't play the way I want to [at the Open]. I'll check it out, but at least I've got a week, though obviously it's a day-to-day thing at this point. I certainly hope I can take care of this soon."
Furyk, whose loopy swing has been described as an octopus falling out of a tree, was asked his favorite description of his swing:
"Effective," he said.
He had a quick answer when jokingly asked if he thought the USGA would ban unorthodox swings.
"If they do, they're going to have to take away all of Arnold Palmer's and Lee Trevino's records," he said.
Get ready, get set, get your controllers ready. Woods is about to make his first video game appearance.
Yes, that's right. Better let the news sink in a little bit before you try to move or you could get a little dizzy.
Called Tiger Woods '99, the PlayStation game was unveiled last weekend at the fourth Electronic Entertainers Expo in Atlanta, where more than 40,000 PC gamers showed up to see more than 1,600 new titles.
Here's what the news release had to say about Tiger's initial foray into videoland: "Sharp graphics and real-life poses, including Mr. Woods' famous fist pump, highlight this release."
Real-life poses featuring club-throwing might be included in the sequel.
IT'S JUST A DREAM
It's looking as though 59 isn't what it used to be. A couple of weeks ago, Notah Begay shot a 59 in a Nike Tour event and Doug Dunakey shot the same score last week in a Nike event at Springboro, Ohio.
In fact, Dunakey would have had a 58 if he hadn't missed a two-footer for par on the 18th hole. He said he slept all right that night. Sort of.
"It doesn't mean I didn't dream about missing a two-footer for 58 a few hundred times. It was more than a dream. It was a nightmare because I missed it every time again."
On this date 50 years ago, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open at Riviera Country Club, by two strokes over Jimmy Demaret.
THEN DON'T EAT IT
Graham Marsh is the defending U.S. Senior Open champion and will be at Riviera for this year's event, July 23-26. Marsh knows enough about Riviera's famed kikuyu grass to worry about it. He said it's the toughest grass there is.
"It could choke a goat."
DON'T HOLD BACK, MAC
There is an article about skilled golf teacher and somewhat quirky former PGA Tour pro Mac O'Grady in the latest issue of Golf Digest. Titled "Golf's Tortured Genius," the article did not sit well with O'Grady, who took the unusual step of faxing his own press release in response.
O'Grady's flair for words indicated if he ever wants to put away his clubs, he has a terrific future as a comedy writer.
* "They quoted every slimy, sleazy, up-right walking scum-bag invertebrate [that] life and the game of golf unfortunately introduced me to during my 47 years on earth."
* "Don't they realize I'm ancient history? My bones and DNA petrified long ago."
* "The article . . . took on a World Wrestling Federation personality. They delightfully called me every name in the book except a liar, a cheat or that I was gay. So maybe [Golf Digest] has a conscience after all. They didn't say I was Dennis Rodman's half brother."
THE MARTIN CHRONICLES
How is Casey Martin beginning U.S. Open week in San Francisco? By being in Minneapolis on Monday to fulfill a long-standing commitment to play in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes tournament.
Martin, who made it through Open qualifying in Cincinnati this week riding a one-person cart, accidentally kicked the ignition off and had to walk two holes. Otherwise, Martin said the cart was fine: "It got me to my ball."
Martin earned his place in the Open with a birdie on the second playoff hole after finishing 36 holes tied with four others, including Eugene, Ore., friend Eric Johnson. It was Johnson who consoled Martin in the parking lot before the playoff after Martin had double-bogeyed the 36th hole.
"I told him I felt like an idiot," Martin said. "He assured me I would feel that way again."
When he gets to the Open, Martin said he will not shy away from any of his critics in the locker room. He said he wants to see them.
"I'm not going to invite them to my birthday party, but I'll say hi. I won't make an issue of it. I want to enjoy the tournament."
IT'S HOWDY HOOTIE TIME
The new Masters chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, said there are going to be some changes made around the old place . . . on the course.
On No. 2, the tee is being moved back 25 yards to bring the fairway bunker into play. At No. 11, the dam system is being replaced, the green is being raised two feet and the pond is being raised one foot.
The mounds on the 15th fairway are being cut down 85% and clusters of pine trees are being planted. The mound to the right of the 15th green is on its way out. The tee at No. 17 is being moved back 15 yards.
Johnson said the changes have been in the works for several years and do not reflect a reaction to Woods' record-breaking score two years ago.
"The course will hold up in the foreseeable future," he said. "The record Tiger broke, that had stood up for 32 years. We feel like we have a pretty challenging golf course."
THEN USE IT MORE OFTEN
Annika Sorenstam, third on the 1998 money list despite playing in only 10 of a possible 17 tournaments, won the Michelob Light Classic last Sunday and she thinks she knows why.
"For some reason, I always play well when I use my brain."
THE JACK FILE
Jack Nicklaus, who is 58, will be playing in his 42nd consecutive U.S. Open. Nicklaus played his first Open at Inverness in 1957 when he was an amateur. Nicklaus is a four-time U.S. Open winner and has made 34 cuts, an Open record.
As for his majors streak, the Open will be Nicklaus' 146th in succession.
BIRDIES, BOGEYS, PARS
The Tim Brown Kid-Am Mentor tournament, in which 72 fatherless boys are paired with 72 mentors, will be played Monday at Palace Park in Irvine. Details: (805) 376-6067. . . . The Byron Scott/Toshiba celebrity tournament will be held June 29 at Pacific Golf and Country Club in San Clemente. The event benefits Challenge for Children. Details: (760) 632-7770.