U.S. Open: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson make up the group to watch at Olympic

Andrew Redington/Getty Images - Masters champion Bubba Watson aims for his second major.

SAN FRANCISCO — Pick six names that might win the U.S. Open this week at the glorious Olympic Club. Rory McIlroy, sure, because he is only a year removed from his record-setting performance in taking the first major of a promising career. Tiger Woods, of course, because he owns 14 major titles, is coming off a win, and looks to be in his best form in years. Phil Mickelson, naturally, because he has come so close so often in this event. Luke Donald because he is No. 1 in the world, Bubba Watson because he won the Masters, and Lee Westwood because he just might be the best contemporary player yet to take a major championship.

That is more than a reasonable list. Now take Donald, McIlroy and Westwood — ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world, respectively — and put them in the same group for Thursday and Friday. There would be, understandably, a buzz.

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Andy Zhang is believed to be the youngest player in championship history. He was born in China and has lived in Florida since 2008. Zhang lost in a playoff at a sectional qualifier and was an alternate until Paul Casey withdrew with injuries.

Andy Zhang is believed to be the youngest player in championship history. He was born in China and has lived in Florida since 2008. Zhang lost in a playoff at a sectional qualifier and was an alternate until Paul Casey withdrew with injuries.

“I certainly don’t think it’s the most recognizable group,” Donald said. “We all know who that is.”

That would be the group that will tee off at 7:33 a.m. Pacific time, the fourth group off the ninth tee on Olympic’s Lake Course. There will be Woods. There will be Mickelson. And there will be Watson. “We’re trying to create excitement,” said Tom O’Toole, the chairman of the U.S. Golf Association’s championship committee, which sets the groups. That they have done.

“It’s fabulous,” Mickelson said. It would seem to be that way for everybody.

The 112th U.S. Open begins Thursday morning with three of the most compelling characters in a 156-player field playing directly alongside each other. The impact of that grouping could be negligible on their play. But the impact on the tournament — from logistics to buzz — will be significant. When O’Toole and USGA executive director Mike Davis considered putting Woods and Mickelson together — which they did once before, in 2008 at Torrey Pines — they had to first consult the members of their staff charged with managing crowds around a tight, sloping layout.

“There was a lot of thought given to this,” O’Toole said.

In 2008, the USGA selected several groups based on the world rankings, and Mickelson, Woods and Adam Scott happened to end up together. Four years later — even though Woods hasn’t won a major in that span, and Mickelson has only the 2010 Masters — there are still no two players who move golf’s needle like they do.

“For us to get that pairing was exciting, I think, for everyone,” Woods said. “I think this year will be the same.”

Woods, though, played down his proximity to his longtime rival. “I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” he said. “This is a major championship. We’ve got work to do. Any extra motivation? No.”

Contrast that with Mickelson, whose most recent eye-to-eye matchup with Woods came in February, just down the coast at Pebble Beach. In the final round of that PGA Tour event, Mickelson fired up an inspired 64, dusting Woods’s 75.

“First of all, I get excited to play with Tiger,” Mickelson said. “I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me.. . .

“Second is, the one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf, that may have a chance to beat me, is Tiger.”

Woods and Mickelson first played together in the 1997 PGA Championship. Since then, neither has a distinct advantage. In 30 professional rounds together, Woods has shot a better score 13 times, Mickelson has done so 13 times, and they have matched each other four times. That has tilted recently in Mickelson’s direction. In their last 12 rounds together, dating to 2007, Mickelson has shot the better score eight times.

“When we first started playing together, I don’t know what it was exactly, but I didn’t play my best when we were paired together,” Mickelson said. “And the last five years or so, I’ve been able to focus clearly when we’ve played. I’ve been able to enjoy the challenge of playing with him.”

The grouping with Watson — who played down his place in the spotlight by saying, “They’re not going to be focused on what I’m doing; hopefully I’m not going to be focused on what they’re doing” — will serve as a guide to what story lines will take shape for the weekend, even before the tournament is six hours old. Woods is coming off a scintillating performance at the Memorial, where he birdied three of the final four holes for his second victory of the season. Mickelson, conversely, shot 79 in the opening round of the same tournament, then withdrew, citing “mental fatigue.”

“I don’t see myself as a favorite,” Mickelson said.

Woods would certainly count as one. But so might Donald, who is seeking his first major championship. Olympic plays to a par of 70 and stretches to 7,170 yards, short by U.S. Open standards, and the Donald’s precision might be perfect on a tight layout that, for once, takes a premium off killing the ball.

So if Donald or McIlroy or Westwood or someone else starts his tournament Thursday with a lovely 68, take note. But understand, too, why it might be a footnote to what happens in that 7:33 a.m. tee time off of No. 9.

“If I was a golf fan I’d want to watch that group,” McIlroy said, “because I’m sure you’ll see some fireworks.”

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