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US Open dramatic but not a classic

It had the drama of a Tiger Woods charge and a Retief Goosen meltdown in the final round but ultimately the 105th U.S. Open cannot be described as a classic.

While New Zealand's Michael Campbell was a worthy winner after holding off world number one Woods over the closing stretch, the tournament lacked that extra edge with four of the game's so-called "Big Five" failing to contend.

Twice champion Goosen, red-hot favourite after starting the last day at Pinehurst three shots clear, spectacularly folded with an 11-over-par 81.

Fellow South African Ernie Els, the world number three, blew his chances of a fourth career major with a second-round 76 before finishing in a tie for 15th.

Fourth-ranked Phil Mickelson, who came desperately close to winning the last U.S. Open staged at Pinehurst in 1999, narrowly made the halfway cut and ending up in a share of 33rd.

Although world number two Vijay Singh tied for sixth after closing with a 72, he was never in genuine contention on the last day and, like Woods, struggled all week with his putting.

For the 2005 U.S. Open to rate as a vintage championship, at least three of the game's leading players had to be in the title hunt -- as happened at Pinehurst six years ago.

In 1999, the late Payne Stewart held off a last-day challenge by fellow American Mickelson to win the third major title of his career by a shot.

Wearing his trademark "plus-four" trousers, Stewart sank pressure putts at the last three holes, including a 15-footer for par on 18.

Singh and Woods shared third place on a high-quality leaderboard with then world number one David Duval tying for seventh. Of the game's best players at the time, twice U.S. Open champion Els was the notable absentee after missing the cut.

"That was one of the best Sundays of U.S. Open golf for a very long time," recalled Els, who won the tournament at Oakmont in 1994 and at Congressional in 1997.

"Phil was going for his first win, Tiger was playing his first really good U.S. Open and Vijay was also in there.

"And Payne just gutted it out. He wanted it more than anybody, you could see that."

Although last week's tournament will not hold a place in the game's treasure chest of major gems, it will be certainly be remembered for several compelling storylines and for a brute of a layout that tested the players' short-game nerve to the limit.

Campbell, who led the 1995 British Open at St Andrews after three rounds before tying for third, put behind him a decade of golfing heartache and injury to clinch his first major title by two shots.

The beefy Jason Gore, an unheralded American who plays on the second-tier Nationwide Tour, became the gallery favourite at Pinehurst as he played his way into the final group on Sunday.

Although he ballooned out of contention with a dismal 84, he will not be forgotten for his Cinderella performance at the game's highest level after starting the week ranked 818 in the world.

Certainly the most significant factor last week was the role played by Pinehurst's formidable No. 2 course.

At 7,214 yards, it is the equal longest in U.S. Open history but its length was never going to trouble the players as much as its renowned dome-shaped greens.

Approach shots often became a lottery in the fast-running conditions and the sight of balls rolling off the green after the most delicate of chips was an abiding image of Sunday's final round.

"It's one of the most difficult that I've ever seen because of the pin locations and these greens," said U.S. Masters champion Woods.

"You can hit good shots and get absolutely hosed. You putt balls off greens, hit good shots that kick one foot, two feet and the next you know, you're 30 yards away from the flag.

"Television does not even come close to doing justice to the slopes of these greens and where they put the pins."

Virtually to a man, though, last week's field described the course as brutally tough but fair.

"In the 10 Opens that I've played, it's probably the best course because it leaves no room for error," said American Ryder Cup player Stewart Cink.

"It's the ultimate place for an Open, but it takes about six years to recover mentally from playing here."


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