At Pinehurst, a focus on knickers, a slam, and the Big Five

Golf's US Open will feature paeans to Payne Stewart, Tiger Woods' quest for another major, and foreigners on US soil

To casual golf fans, he was just the guy in the funny pants. But on Father's Day, 1999, in Pinehurst N.C., Payne Stewart gave the golf world a moment of euphoria.

On the last hole of the '99 US Open, he sank a 15-foot par putt to clinch victory - the longest putt ever converted to win America's national championship. Stewart's eyes lit up. He pumped his fist.

Then, in an act of class, he rushed over to his deflated opponent, Phil Mickelson, who was awaiting word on the birth of his first child. He cradled Mickelson's head in his hands, pulling him close. "You're going to be a father!" he reminded him.

It was a memorable scene, one that the golf world will relive many times when the US Open returns to Pinehurst Thursday. The sinewy fairways of the North Carolina course have not hosted an Open since Stewart died in a bizarre plane crash in October of '99, just months after his victory.

Besides the poignant tributes to the man who wore knickers, though, there are plenty of other story lines at the 105th playing of America's national championship this weekend. Could this be the season Tiger Woods wins a "grand slam" (the Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship all in the same calendar year)? Talk of a "slam" has been quiet so far because no player has dominated the men's professional major championships the way Tiger did from 1999 to 2002.

But anytime Tiger wins the Masters (the season's opening major), the possibility that "this could be the year" certainly becomes a talking point in clubhouses and on putting greens. Expect Tiger to be especially hungry for another victory: He missed a 36-hole cut in May at the Byron Nelson Classic, his first in nearly 7 years. With his record in the majors - 9 victories, third all time - no one will be counting him out.

Besides Woods, everyone will be watching the other members of the "Big Five" - an elite group that has separated itself from the rest of the pack: America's Mickelson, South Africans Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and Vijay Singh of Fiji. Els and Goosen have taken home four of the past 10 US Open trophies (two apiece), proving that foreigners can - and do - conquer America's national championship. Goosen is the defending champion. Look for both to be in contention this week.

Singh has been the tour's most consistent player over the past two seasons and is currently the leading money winner. He was challenging in the '99 championship at Pinehurst but fell short on Sunday.

Pinehurst No. 2's fast, elevated greens and closely cropped chipping areas will favor a player with a delicate touch and good imagination with a wedge. Mickelson, known for his confidence around the greens, seems to have a game well-suited to the layout.

Outside the Big Five lurks a strong cast of international contenders still seeking a first major championship. Among them: Australian Adam Scott, Irishman Padraig Harrington, and Spain's Sergio Garcia (who is coming in hot after winning last weekend at the Booz Allen Classic).

A group of experienced Americans - Justin Leonard, Kenny Perry, David Toms, Chris Dimarco, and 2003 US Open winner Jim Furyk - also stand ready to upset the pre-tournament favorites. Regardless of the outcome, the memories of Stewart - and another Father's Day finish - promises to make for a weekend of good theater amid the North Carolina pines.

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