Tiger Woods has been playing better recently than he has in years, making him a contender for the U.S. Open. (JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS)

The United States Open begins today. It’s our national golf championship. The best players in the world will tee it up at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California.

So golf fans are wondering:

●Can Tiger Woods win his 15th major championship? Woods is playing well for the first time in years, so he may be among the leaders.

●Will Rory McIlroy win his second U.S. Open in a row? The 23-year-old sensation from Northern Ireland ran away with last year’s tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, winning by eight strokes.

●Or will fan favorite Phil Mickelson finally win his first U.S. Open? Mickelson, who has won more than 40 professional tournaments, has come in second at the U.S. Open a record five times.

Rory McIlroy won the tournament last year, when it was played in Bethesda. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

The U.S. Open can produce surprises, in part because it’s an “open.” About 80 professional golfers automatically get invited to the tournament because of their world ranking or previous professional wins. But other golfers — mostly amateurs, teaching professionals and lesser-known professionals — get a chance to play their way into the Open.

In fact, the event started weeks ago, when more than 9,000 golfers from around the United States and the world played in local qualifying tournaments. The best performers in those competitions moved on to sectional tournaments played at 13 locations, including Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.

About 60 golfers qualified for the big tournament from the regional events. Two U.S. Open champions — Ken Venturi (1964) and Orville Moody (1969) — won the tournament after qualifying through local and sectional play. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.

So root for Tiger or Rory or Phil or one of your other favorite golfers. I’m rooting for a qualifier such as Casey Martin.

Years ago, Martin played with Tiger Woods on the Stanford University golf team. He even competed in the 1998 U.S. Open and finished tied for 23rd.

Martin, however, was born with a rare condition in his right leg that makes it impossible for him to walk the golf course. Martin has to ride in a golf cart. He had some success as a professional golfer, but his leg made it too hard to play at a high level. He is now the golf coach at the University of Oregon.

But Martin qualified for this year’s Open by playing well in the local and sectional tournaments. So he will be riding his golf cart around the Olympic Club this week.

Phil Mickelson holds the record for most second-place finishes at the Open. (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Martin probably will not win. But just playing in the Open is a victory for him and all the other U.S. Open qualifiers.

Fred Bowen writes the sports opinion column for the KidsPost. He is the author of 17 sports books for kids. His latest, “Go for the Goal!,” will be published in August.