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Woods a heavy favorite for Merion U.S. Open

Tiger Woods of the U.S. bounces a ball on his putter as he leaves the 16th green during a practice round for the 2013 U.S. Open golf champio
Tiger Woods of the U.S. bounces a ball on his putter as he leaves the 16th green during a practice round for the 2013 U.S. Open golf champio

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

(Reuters) - Merion Golf Club has been linked with some of the most iconic moments in championship golf and Tiger Woods will aim to add a chapter of his own when he competes there in this week's U.S. Open as the overwhelming favorite.

A host of other in-form players can lay claim to being genuine contenders for the year's second major, which begins on Thursday, but Woods is widely viewed as the likeliest winner based on his outstanding record and the often dominant form he has shown this season.

Though Woods did not fare well in his most recent start, languishing joint 65th in a field of 73 at the Memorial Tournament eight days ago, he has triumphed four times on the 2013 PGA Tour and is clearly the player to beat at Merion.

With much of his golf this year, the American world number one has revived memories of his glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and he will be eager to end a major title drought dating back to his playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open.

"I feel comfortable with the motion I'm making," three-times U.S. Open champion Woods said of the progress he has made in consultation with coach Sean Foley following the fourth swing change of his career.

"All the stretches where I've played well for a few years, a few tournaments ... I just felt good about what I was able to do ... being able to fix it (the swing) on the fly.

"That took a little bit of time, and I finally have turned the corner. What you're seeing this year is that I've gotten more precise and I've been able to work on other parts of my game and made them strengths."

Woods was bitterly disappointed with his overall game at the Memorial Tournament, especially his putting, and was swift to outline what needed improving for Merion when asked by reporters.

"Everything," the 14-times major champion replied. "You want everything clicking on all cylinders, especially at the U.S. Open because everything is tested in the U.S. Open."

Merion's iconic East Course will be hosting its fifth U.S. Open this week, but its first in 32 years after long being regarded as too short to host a major.

PRECISE SHOT-MAKING

The par-70 layout located in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore has been stretched to 6,996 yards since Australian David Graham triumphed by three strokes in the 1981 edition, and Woods appreciates that precise shot-making is required for success.

This is a course, after all, where Bobby Jones completed his "grand slam" by winning the 1930 U.S. amateur, where Ben Hogan claimed the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after being involved in a near-fatal motor vehicle accident and where Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff to win the 1971 U.S. Open.

"If you look at the list of champions, they have all been really good shot-makers," said Woods, who played 13 holes of practice at Merion on Sunday.

"They have all been able to shape the golf ball. That's what it lends itself to. You have to be able to shape the golf ball, and you have to be so disciplined to play the course."

Phil Mickelson, runner-up a record five times at the U.S. Open, visited Merion last week and was lavish with his praise for a layout that has thick rough, narrow, tilted fairways, deep bunkers, contoured greens and several semi-blind tee shots.

"It's really a wonderful set-up, the best I've seen," said the four-times major champion.

"They gave you birdie opportunities on the easy holes, and they made tough pars a little bit harder, which allows the player that is playing well to separate himself from the field."

As ever at a U.S. Open, the ability to minimize errors and to stay patient on slick greens and tight fairways flanked by thick, graduated rough will be defining traits in the make-up of this week's champion.

Because of Merion's limited yardage and its mix of long with short holes, United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis has predicted more birdies than usual at a U.S. Open, and a greater number of potential winners.

"There's going to be more birdies made, trust me, at this U.S. Open than any we have seen in recent history," said Davis. "Why? Because there are just some holes out here that lend themselves to it.

"And there are probably more players that can potentially win this U.S. Open than in any other U.S. Open venue we go to. Some of that is the overall distance, that we're under 7,000 yards. It allows more players to be competitive."

Included in that long list of potential winners are Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia, Englishmen Justin Rose and Luke Donald, and in-form American Matt Kuchar, who clinched his sixth PGA Tour title at the Memorial Tournament.

Northern Irish world number two Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion at Congressional, is another likely contender as he bids to claim his first tournament victory this season after winning five times worldwide last year.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)

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