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U.S. Open, back at Pebble Beach, has many stories to follow

Tom Watson, who has a special exemption into the U.S. Open, hasn’t lost his passion for the game at the age of 60.

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Tom Watson, who has a special exemption into the U.S. Open, hasn’t lost his passion for the game at the age of 60.

The U.S. Open, the year's second major, is being played on one of golf's historic courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links. The last time the tournament was played at Pebble Beach, in 2000, Tiger Woods won by an astonishing 15 shots. Things have changed in 10 years, and there are plenty of stories to follow as the tournament tees off today.

Five interesting story lines

Tom Watson earned a special exemption into the U.S. Open. It was the only way the 60-year-old could make it into the field. Watson was the 1982 U.S. Open champion, which was held at Pebble Beach. Despite his age, Watson has proven he can still compete in majors: He led the 2009 British Open on the final day before losing to Stewart Cink in a playoff. Watson has no plans to retire.

"I look back to when I was about 40 and Jack (Nicklaus) was about 50 and making noises about retirement,'' Watson said. "Well, Jack didn't retire until he was about 65. I remember saying to myself, 'When I'm 45, I'll hang it up and do something else.' But here I am still playing at 60. I was just fooling myself or lying to myself. What else would I like to do? Well, I'd like to learn photography. But bottom line: I still spend more time practicing my golf than I do anything else. That's what I am."

Erik Compton, 30, always wanted to play in a U.S. Open. He thought that dream was dashed three years ago when he suffered a massive heart attack and needed a second heart transplant. He received his first when he was 12 after being diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy. After the transplant, Compton thought his golf career was over. He even sold most of his equipment. But his wife, Barbara, encouraged him to get back on the course. He played in some tournaments and eventually went through two qualifiers to get into the U.S. Open.

"I'm a dreamer," Compton said. "So I have dreamed that I could get another heart and I could come back out and play."

Travis Hampshire, 29, is originally from Fort Wayne, Ind., but he relocated to Zephyrhills in 2004. The plan was to play golf year-round and earn a PGA Tour card. So far, Hampshire has made it only to the Hooters Tour, two steps away from the PGA. But he caught lightning in a bottle when he made it through regional and sectional qualifying to earn a tee time at Pebble Beach. He never has played a tournament in California, let alone at Pebble Beach.

Tiger Woods smoked the field by a record 15 shots when the U.S. Open was last played at Pebble Beach in 2000. Things have changed in 10 years. Woods is trying to find his game after the adultery scandal, and if he doesn't play well on one of his favorite courses, it will be another sign that he has a long way to go.

Phil Mickelson never has won a U.S. Open, although he has five second-place finishes. This is his 20th attempt, and if he is able to pull it off, it will be his fifth major championship, and it will also make him the No. 1 player in the world, passing Woods. And don't forget that Mickelson, 40, won the Masters, so a U.S. Open win would put him halfway to the grand slam.

"I feel if I play good golf (a No. 1 ranking) will happen," Mickelson said. "I don't know the ranking system or world points or how that works, nor do I care. I just know that if I continue to play well, ultimately, in the long run, it will happen."

Truly an open

There are 79 golfers fully exempt to the U.S. Open. That leaves 77 other spots for exemptions and qualifiers. Take away the special exemption to Tom Watson, and the other 76 golfers came from sectional qualifying. The championship is open to any professional and any amateur golfer with a USGA Handicap Index not exceeding 1.4. Regional and sectional qualifying usually separates the field, and, in most cases, some well-known players have to come through qualifying. Davis Love, Ben Curtis and Stuart Appleby all had to get in through qualifiers this year. Last year's champion, Lucas Glover, right, was a sectional qualifier.

Returning to Pebble

This is the fifth U.S. Open to be held at Pebble Beach. Previous winners are some of the biggest names in golf, so the odds are stacked against a newcomer or grinder winning this week. Here is a look at previous winners at Pebble Beach.

Year/winner1972; Jack Nicklaus

Score/margin290; 3 shots

Earnings$30,000

Year/winner1982; Tom Watson

Score/margin282; 2 shots

Earnings$60,000

Year/winner1992; Tom Kite

Score/margin285; 2 shots

Earnings$275,000

Year/winner2000; Tiger Woods

Score/margins272; 15 shots

Earnings$800,000

Fast facts

•Since 1991, only Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen have finished better than 40th in trying to defend their U.S. Open crowns.

•Here is what's at stake for the U.S. Open champion: A U.S. Open exemption for the next 10 years; an invitation to the next five Masters Tournaments, British Opens, PGA Championships and Players Championships; exempt status on the PGA Tour for five years.

U.S. Open, back at Pebble Beach, has many stories to follow 06/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:13pm]

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