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Greg Kraft puts himself back in U.S. Open mix

Clearwater's Greg Kraft figures he has played more than 500 professional tournaments in his 23-year career. So he wasn't nervous during a U.S. Open qualifier June 8 in Memphis. There were 110 players on the Germantown and Ridgeway country clubs playing for 13 spots. Kraft shot 67-71 but was tied with five others for the final spot. He birdied the first playoff hole along with Marc Leishman. The two played a second hole. Kraft parred, and Leishman bogeyed. "I've been around long enough to not get too nervous over something like this,'' said Kraft, who is playing in his fourth U.S. Open and his first since 2006. "It's not such a big deal. It was a different opportunity for me, and I'm glad I was able to take advantage of it.''

That Kraft, who plays out of Belleair Country Club, is teeing it up this week is a bit of a surprise. He has missed 12 cuts in 15 tournaments this year, including last week's St. Jude Classic. His best finish is a tie for 21st at the Puerto Rico Open on March 15.

He won in Puerto Rico last year, giving him a two-year exemption. Because of that cushion, he has spent this season experimenting with his swing.

"By being exempt for two years, I had some time to make a few mechanical changes,'' he said. "I haven't had that opportunity in a long time. I've put in a lot of hard work the first half of the year, and actually I'm not playing that badly. My putting hasn't been that great, and I've been missing cuts by a shot. I've been so mechanical.

"In the second half of the year I just want to play golf and not think so much.''

Kraft, 45, had not played Bethpage Black before a practice round Monday. He has heard about its length, its thick rough, slick greens and rowdy crowds.

"It doesn't matter,'' Kraft said. "If you keep the ball in the fairway, if you stay in play all week, then nothing else matters.

"And I love the atmosphere when the crowd is into it. I love hearing the roars and having players make shots. That's the way it should be. The course should be set up so players can make birdies or bogeys. It's no fun when you just have to hang on and make pars.''

He doesn't believe this will be his last hurrah in a U.S. Open.

"If I continue to stay in shape and work hard, I've got a lot of golf left in me," Kraft said. "I hope to be at Pebble Beach next year.''

Best story lines

Tiger Woods is the defending champion, and he also won the last U.S. Open at Bethpage Black (2002). The course and its rowdy atmosphere fit him perfectly.

This is Phil Mickelson's second tournament since he announced that his wife, Amy, left, has breast cancer, and it is the one Mickelson wants more than anything. He has never won the U.S. Open, but he has never finished worse than fourth in an Open played in New York. "(Amy) has left me a number of notes, texts, cards, hints that she would like a silver trophy in her hospital room," Mickelson said. "I'm going to try to accommodate that." Amy is scheduled for surgery July 1, which means Mickelson "most likely" will not play the British Open on July 16-19, ending his streak of major championships at 61.

A sign on the first tee warns golfers of how difficult Bethpage State Park's Black Course plays. At 7,426 yards, it is the second longest in U.S. Open history. It has three par 4s that are more than 500 yards long, including the 525-yard seventh hole, the longest par 4 in Open history. And in typical Open fashion, the rough is extra thick and the greens extra slick.

Rain is in the forecast for a course that already has taken its share of water, so it is going to play even longer.

Gators on the course

One of the 16 amateurs in the field is Tyson Alexander, who just finished his junior year at Florida. He totaled 137 at Lake Nona in Orlando to earn one of three spots the qualifier had available for the 57-player field. He was one shot behind former Gator and current assistant coach Josh McCumber. Alexander is the son of Florida coach Buddy Alexander. His grandfather Skip Alexander was the head pro at Lakewood Country Club (now St. Petersburg Country Club). Tyson is the third generation of his family to play in the U.S. Open, after his grandfather and father. Two other former Gators also are in the field: Brian Gay and Camilo Villegas.

Last one in

Steven Conway of Murrietta, Calif., replaced Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen (ear infection) Wednesday. Kjeldsen was the fifth player to withdraw. Conway is the first alternate from sectional qualifying in Roslyn, Wash., and the 31st player in the field to have gone through 18-hole local and 36-hole sectional qualifying.

Pairings to watch today

7:55 a.m.: Jim Furyk, Geoff Ogilvy, Paul Casey (all in top 10 of world rankings).

8:06 a.m.: Padraig Harrington, Angel Cabrera, Tiger Woods (last four major champions).

1:25 p.m.: Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas, Adam Scott, right (out to claim first major).

1:36 p.m.: Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson (marquee players — the first two South Africa's best — with plenty of game left).

1:47 p.m.: Rocco Mediate, Kenny Perry, Tom Lehman (veterans hoping to give it one last shot).

Economic news

Fewer hospitality tents, where the Wall Street crowd traditionally wines and dines clients, meant more tickets were available for fans. Pete Bevacqua, chief business officer for the USGA, said the tickets were scarfed up and the event is sold out; 42,500 fans are expected daily.

Father's Day special

ESPN will air a story on Aaron Stewart, son of the late Payne Stewart, on its 10 and 11 a.m. SportsCenters on Sunday. Aaron, 10 when the Open champion died in a 1999 plane crash, took up golf to feel closer to his dad.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

The second major

When/where: Through Sunday; Bethpage Black, Famingdale, N.Y.

Format: 72 holes of stroke play

Cut: Top 60 and ties, and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead after 36 holes

Playoff, if necessary: 18 holes of stroke play Monday

Field: 156 players (141 professionals, 15 amateurs)

Purse: $7.5 million ($1.35 million to winner)

TV: Today — 10 a.m., ESPN; 3 p.m., Ch. 8; 5 p.m., ESPN. Friday — 10 a.m., ESPN; 3 p.m., Ch. 8; 5 p.m., ESPN. Saturday — 2 p.m., Ch. 8; Sunday — 1:30 p.m., Ch. 8

Weather: 70 percent chance of rain today, high 65; cloudy Friday with 20 percent chance of rain and high 69; showers Saturday and Sunday with 40 percent chance of rain, high 72

Quoteworthy: "We'll stay here until we get a champion." Jim Hyler, USGA championship committee chairman, on the forecast and the USGA's refusal to let players lift, clean and place balls in the fairway

Greg Kraft puts himself back in U.S. Open mix 06/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 8:36am]

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