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Tiger favourite to clinch ninth Major title

Tiger Woods does not enjoy the same level of dominance over his rivals as he did two years ago but the defending champion will still start as clear favourite for next week's U.S. Open at Olympia Fields.

Although the 27-year-old American has not won a major title since he clinched last year's tournament by three shots at Bethpage State Park's Black Course, he is convinced his game is now close to where he wants it to be.

"Things are starting to show some real positive signs and I am pleased about that," said the world number one, who has had to reduce his playing schedule this season following knee surgery last December.

"I'm pleased with the way I have been practising, hitting the ball on the range and playing on the golf course. I'm close to getting the swing where I need to have it."

Woods will be bidding for a third U.S. Open crown from next Thursday, having blown away the field by a staggering 15 strokes to win his first at Pebble Beach in 2000.

He strung together rounds of 65, 69, 71 and 67 for a record-equalling tournament aggregate of 272, his margin of victory eclipsing the previous championship mark of 11 shots set by Willie Smith in 1899.

Although he could manage only a tie for 12th at Southern Hills the following year, when Retief Goosen triumphed after beating Mark Brooks in a playoff, Woods restored order with a clinical performance at Bethpage Black last year.

The world's outstanding golfer fired a closing 72 to secure the eighth major title of his career, becoming the first player to win the U.S. Open wire-to-wire on two occasions.

Always meticulous in his preparations for the majors, Woods played Olympia Fields Country Club's North Course for the first time last week. He expects a typical U.S. Open challenge when the second major of the year starts.

"It's a different golf course and there are a lot of angles," he said. "You have to shape the ball and you have to make a decision on your carries, what line you are going to take.

"At Bethpage, it was straight ahead and go ahead, go ahead, and speed it. I think I will be using more three-woods than anything else (off the tee)."

The par-70 North Course layout, unusually, has no par-five holes on its second nine and provides a notoriously tough finish with both the par-three 17th and par-four 18th played into the prevailing wind.

"I think it's going to force everybody to play more defensive," said Woods. "I think that's what a U.S. Open does."

In keeping with U.S. Open tradition, the title-holder will be playing the first two rounds with the British Open champion, Ernie Els, and the U.S. amateur champion, Ricky Barnes.

This means the world's top two players will be going head-to-head over the first two days.

"It's always fun playing with a great player like Ernie," said Woods. "But he's going to be playing his own game and we're going to be in our own world.

"He knows how to win U.S. Opens...and he's done it twice. I'm sure he'll go out there and play his own game and so will I."

When Woods won three of the four majors during 2000, Els was one of several leading players who clearly suffered psychologically from the 'Tiger factor'.

The South African's mental frailty deteriorated further at last year's U.S. Masters when he self-destructed on the back nine after contending for the title but all that appeared to change with his British Open victory at Muirfield last year.

Els signalled he could provide a genuine challenge to Woods at this year's majors after winning four titles in his first five starts of the season, and the world number two believes he is in good shape for Olympia Fields.

"I actually feel like my game is really close to where it was when I was winning tournaments at the start of the season," said the big-hitting South African, who won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994 and at Congressional in 1997.

"These next two or three months will be a good time to get back (in) the winning habit again."

The only slight concern for Els has been his putting but he is confident this will be rectified by the time he tees off in Thursday's first round.

Others quite capable of challenging strongly next week include 1997 U.S. PGA champion Davis Love III, a three-times winner on the 2003 PGA Tour, left-handed Mike Weir, who won the U.S. Masters in April, and twice major champion Vijay Singh.

But Woods remains the title favourite and, if he does triumph at the 103rd U.S. Open, he will have clinched his eighth major in 15 successive outings -- and his ninth in all.


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