| Lee Janzen at the Olympia Fields Country Club outside Chicago on Tuesday during practice for the US Open which begins on Thursday. Janzen won the tournament in 1993 and 1998. (Reuters)
Olympia Fields (Illinois): The tiger hunters are out in force at the US Open, and the awe and fear that Woods once struck in opponents is rapidly fading.
Masters champion Mike Weir and world No. 2 Ernie Els are leading the charge to strip the 27-year-old Woods of his remaining Major and leave him without a Major title for the first time in four years.
Weir has no fears about taking on the world’s top player. As far as the left-handed Canadian is concerned, a US Open course is tailor made for his game — especially here at Olympia Fields.
“I’ve always felt the strength of my game has been my mid-irons. What makes me feel I have a chance here is that for the most part it’s going to be a mid-irons,” explained Weir. “The golf course sets up for me pretty well.”
The 33-year-old is so confident of his game this season that he is even eyeing the Grand Slam.
“I feel there is a possibility I could do it,” said Weir. “Things have to fall into place and the stars have to line up, but never rule anything out.”
Els, paired with Woods for the first two rounds, is coming back after an enforced lay-off caused when he injured his wrist hitting a punching bag he has hanging in his garage.
After a blistering start to the season Els faded slightly but now, battling fit, his game is coming back to where he wants it.
In the European PGA Championship last month he finished fourth and warned that he was almost back to full form.
The two-time US Open champion sees no reason why he can’t make it three. “I’m not too far away,” said Els, who spent all of last week working on his putting.
“You need to be physically and mentally fresh for a Major and I feel like that coming in here. I have done everything to be 100 per cent prepared, and everything is going according to plan.”
“Tiger is No. 1 in the world, so it depends on how your motivation goes,” he said on Tuesday. “Some guys want to motivate in certain ways, and I’m sure the younger guys come out and they want to beat Tiger.
“Tiger is going to beat us 70 per cent of the time, so in that way they’re right. But other times he’s not there, so you’ve just got to plug away and do your thing.”
Also looking to take on Woods is Europe’s top player at present — Padraig Harrington.
The 31-year-old is playing the best golf of his career and insists he is ready to make the step up and win his first Major.
“If I get the chance I am ready,” said Harrington, who had yet to play the course last morning.
“It’s great to see if you can stay focussed and disciplined and not make mental errors over four days here. I think it’s something that suits me. It does rely heavily on a good mental strategy this week, and I do like that about a US Open,” added the Dubliner.
Phil Mickelson, plagued with the tag of being the best player never to have won a Major, is convinced he can go one better than his second place finish last year at Bethpage.
And Mickelson is determined to take risks to put himself in contention come Sunday.
“I have to take a few more chances than I have in past Opens this week in an effort to close the gap, to get below par heading into Sunday because I think the leaders Saturday night will be a few under par and I’d like to be as close to that lead as possible,” he explained. “Last year I played a little too conservative.”
Davis Love III, Vijai Singh and a rejuvenated Justin Leonard are also favourites to halt Woods, but the world No. 1 issued a stark warning on Tuesday to his attackers.
“I’m pleased at the signs I’m showing,” said Woods. “My game is pretty good.”
Woods also believes he has the perfect defence against any cross-winds at the Open — a new high-tech golf ball, produced for him by Nike.
Woods first began using the prototype three-cover ball at the European Tour’s Deutsche Bank Open a month ago and was immediately delighted with the results.
“This new ball — the core is faster and it’s interesting enough that the outer cover is actually softer,” the 27-year-old said on Tuesday. “It’s a weird blend, it goes further and spins more on the greens. But hey, it works and I’m pleased at the signs it’s showing.”
His coach Butch Harmon has no doubts that his star pupil will win here this week.
“I expect Tiger to win, and I have already put my money where my mouth is,” he said. “We haven’t seen him firing on all cylinders this year but when he does, and I think we will see it at the US Open, he is unbeatable.
“He would be very disappointed to be without any of the four Majors and I would be very surprised. But that is the sort of thing to motivate him.”
Woods agrees that his swing is near to his best at pebble beach in 2000.
“It’s close to that,” smiled Woods. “I don’t hit the ball as long as I did then, with my shorter irons, that’s for sure because I don’t go at it as hard. Everything else is about the same.”
For the bookies, Woods is firm favourite but with many of his rivals losing their fear of him, Tiger faces the real threat of losing his domination of golf.