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111th US Open

This Open is wide open

No clear-cut favorite when first round gets underway

On Sunday, Phil Mickelson hopes to be signing the winning US Open scorecard for the first time. On Sunday, Phil Mickelson hopes to be signing the winning US Open scorecard for the first time. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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BETHESDA, Md. — The first man to hold the US Open scoring record in relation to par finished 72 holes at 33 under. Since then, the US Golf Association has joyously (some would say fiendishly) evened the score, setting up an annual attempt by qualified dreamers, typically futile, at cracking its secret code protecting birdies.

With the 111th US Open set to begin today just up the road from the nation’s capital at Congressional Country Club, it’s safe to say that nobody will match the exploits from 1906, when Alex Smith torched the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Ill., shooting 73-74-75-73. Smith’s total (the course back then was a par 82) is forever safe. Someone is more likely to finish 72 holes this week at 33 over.

One aspect of this year’s event might bear a striking resemblance to Smith’s era, however. Back then, the winners of the US Open weren’t born in the United States. In fact, it wasn’t until the 17th playing of the US Open — in 1911 — that the winner was American-born.

The current game has also been dominated recently by non-Americans, with none of the four major championship trophies in US hands, the first time that’s been the case since 1994. Add in Europe’s Ryder Cup win, and five of the most important weeks in golf’s calendar have crowned international winners.

The top three players in the world are from outside the US: Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are from England, and Martin Kaymer is from Germany. They’ve been grouped for the first two rounds here, coming together for a 36-hole reminder that golf’s global hierarchy currently resides elsewhere.

Don’t be alarmed, says Phil Mickelson.

“I’m actually very encouraged where our American golfers are,’’ he said. “But it’s obvious that world golf as a whole has become so much stronger.’’

Mickelson, who turns 41 today, is the last American to win a major championship, the 2010 Masters. He’s never won the US Open, but has been painstakingly close, and has a record five runner-up finishes. He might be running out of chances — Hale Irwin (45 in 1990) is the oldest winner in tournament history — but to hear Mickelson, it took him some time to figure out how best to navigate such a grueling week and penalizing setup.

“I’ve kind of figured out how to manage myself around, control my misses, and salvage pars the hard way,’’ Mickelson said. “I’m not going to play perfect golf, I’m not going to hit every fairway. But I can salvage pars, and that’s allowed me to be in contention a number of times.’’

Mickelson is considered one of the favorites to win this week, along with Donald, Westwood, Kaymer, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Nick Watney, Matt Kuchar, and Hunter Mahan. They all have something in common: None has ever won the US Open. Of that pack, only Mickelson and Kaymer own majors.

“It’s dangerous to go and expect too much and come to a tournament expecting to win,’’ said Donald, the world’s No. 1. “But I expect to do what I know I can do. The goal is always to have a chance on Sunday and to contend. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and there’s no reason why I can’t do it this week.’’

Of the top 20 players in the world rankings who are here (No. 15 Tiger Woods is not), just two have won this tournament: Graeme McDowell last year, and Jim Furyk in 2003. If the cream rises to the top this week, the odds favor someone breaking through and winning the US Open for the first time.

If recent trends continue, we’ll have someone new come out on top. With Woods falling off because of scandal and injury, it’s given others an opportunity, which they’ve gladly seized. The last 10 majors have been won by 10 different players.

It’ll take someone with a range of skills to win. Congressional can play as long as 7,574 yards, so it might favor a longer hitter. But the US Open demands accuracy, favoring someone who hits it straight. Coping with bad breaks, chipping well, and holing midrange putts for par are also required.

Moans, groans, curses, shouts, whines, and sarcastic shrugs. Body language at the US Open is unlike anything seen in professional golf, brought about by the survival test the USGA devises and oversees. Something you shouldn’t see much of this week, though, according to a two-time US Open winner, are smiles. At least not inside the ropes.

“Playing in a US Open, if you’re having fun, there’s something wrong with you,’’ said Andy North, who won in 1978 and ’85 and is now an analyst for ESPN. “It is the most brutal of all tests. I know all the sports psychologists are telling all these guys you’re supposed to smile and have a wonderful time. I wasn’t talented enough to go out there and have a great time. I had to grind and grind and grind.

“Maybe I was a little better prepared for it than the guy who went out there, hit it around and had a wonderful time, and smiled and waved at everybody. Because that is not what the US Open is about.’’

Mickelson smiles when he’s out there, even during the US Open. He’d like nothing more than to be smiling when it’s over, and accepting congratulations after years of close calls.

“Being in contention so many times through the years, I really believe that I can win this tournament,’’ Mickelson said. “But if you focus so much on the result, if you focus so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way.

“I’m trying to have the same mind-set I had before I ever won a major, which was belief that I know I could do it and enjoyment of the challenge. I’m going to enjoy this week.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.