There are countless players in the field -- the assistant pros, the hot shot young amateurs, the two kids from never-before-represented Colombia -- who qualified to play in this 104th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills but have no chance to win America's national championship this week, let alone make the cut.

And there are two high profile players, Daid Duval, once ranked No. 1 in the world as recently as six years ago, the other the defending champion, Jim Furyk, who have also come to the posh eastern end of Long Island with no hope, or even expectation, of contending here on the weekend. They, too, will struggle just to advance to the final 36 holes.

Duval, the best player in the world in 1998, has come here to play in a golf tournament for the first time since November, when he ended his worst season in nine years on the PGA Tour. His best finish came in Washington, when he shot 62 in the second round, then bombed out to 28th after 72 holes.

It was his best finish of the most dismal season of his life.

Duval is here despite not playing a single event on the 2004 season.

He's taken a sabbatical from tournament golf, the better to get his game, his back and his head straight. The back and head apparently are in decent shape, but no one will really know about the state of his game until he tees off at 7:40 on Thursday morning on one of the most demanding tests of golf in the world.

Duval apparently has finally found some peace of mind with his marriage four months ago to a previously single mom with two kids. He is said to be exceedingly happy, and has taken to fatherhood like a champion he once was.

He's moved from his native Jacksonville to Denver and apparently has been practicing diligently in recent months to get back out on the tour.

His decision to make his return at the U.S. Open without even a warm-up in recent weeks either at The Memorial or Westchester Classic has raised eyebrows all around the game. His decision not to even get to Shinnecock Hills until Wednesday for his only practice round before play begins on Thursday seems rather bizarre, even if Duval, a voracious reader and deep thinker, has never really marched to the same drummer as most of his spiked shoed colleagues.

Duval has granted almost no interviews during his hiatus, though he has had several off-the-record chats with a few select members of the media. He told the Associated Press over the weekend he decided to come back because it is the U.S. Open, and he didn't want to miss it.

Fair enough. He earned his spot in the field by winning the 2001 British Open, and if this is the way he chooses to manage his career, who's to argue with the decision? If he embarrasses himself with a dreadful display, he'll have no one to blame but himself, and he's always been enough of a stand-up guy to accept that sort of responsibility.

Furyk's decision is a tad more puzzling, only because he is coming off surgery to repair cartilage in his wrist just under three months ago. At the time, he was told the fastest he could expect to come back to playing tournament golf was three months, and now, as he said, he has decided to "push the envelope" and try to play on Thursday.

Furyk, who has earned at least $1 million each of the last seven seasons, including a career best $5.1 million in 2003, has been one of the game's most consistent players in recent years. No matter what he says, he is clearly risking further injury to his surgically repaired wrist unless he can somehow managed to hit all 14 fairways off the tee and reach every green in regulation over the next four days.

The primary rough at Shinnecock is not as punishing as many previous opens, but the occasional wild shot will leave a player in deep fescue with a dicey lie. Ask Tiger Woods how tough it was to get out when he was a 19-year-old playing here in the '95 Open. He hurt his left hand so badly on one hack of the club in the high hay, he was forced to withdraw from the tournament.

Furyk has justified his playing this week by insisting he's got his doctor's blessing. But most of all, it's golf's equivalent of a vanity license plate. Furyk won this event a year ago in Chicago, and he has also admitted the allure of stepping up to the first tee on Thursday and being announced as the 2003 U.S. Open champion also had a lot to do with his decision to play.

He should be applauded for his determination to defend his title, but there wouldn't have been a single one of his playing peers on the planet -- let alone golf fans around the world -- who would have thought any less of his character or his moxie if he had decided not to play and allow his wrist more time to heal.

One bad swing from one horrid lie could even be a career-ending worst-case scenario. It's a risk he seems willing to take, for whatever reasons he can offer. In the case of Duval and Furyk, they're both grown men, independent contractors with minds of their own. They earned the right to play, even if they have no chance to win.

Who does?

For the first time in a long time, Tiger Woods is not considered the overwhelming favorite, especially with Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia currently playing the best golf of their lives. It doesn't matter. My choice is Woods to break out of his oh-for-seven current streak, with a score that will be three or four-under par. The dark horse choice is David Toms, who has the game and the temperament to prevail for his second major title.