Just over a year ago, Michael Campbell attended a US Open Championship qualifier at Walton Heath in England more in hope than expectation. A birdie putt at the 36th and final green secured a place among the elite competing at Pinehurst No.2 ten days later. Two weeks on, he was a Major Champion. Who said golf is a funny game?
Once again, sport had created a story in which fact was stranger than fiction. With a level par total of 280, New Zealand’s personable golfing Maori had the 105th US Open title in his grasp, with Tiger Woods trailing in his wake two strokes adrift.
Now Campbell returns to the United States to defend his crown at Winged Foot Golf Club, New York,, along with 38 other European Tour Members, as the defending Champion and an instantly recognisable figure on the other side of the Atlantic, as much for his considerate nature as his substantial golfing prowess.
Much has happened since that Pinehurst victory – a ticker-tape parade in Wellington being the highlight of a year which ended in Campbell also winning the HSBC World Match Play title at Wentworth Club and being named Maori Sportsman of the Year and The European Tour Golfer of the Year.
To round off a spectacular 2005, he was also accorded Honorary Life Membership of The European Tour in recognition of not only his US Open victory but his long-term commitment to and affection for The European Tour.
Campbell begins his title defence in the company of World Number One Woods – who is chasing his 11th Major title – and Italian amateur Edoardo Molinari, whose brother Francesco won this year’s Telecom Italia Open.
American Phil Mickelson attempts to move closer to holding all four Majors simultaneously by adding the US Open crown to the 2005 US PGA Championship and the 2006 Masters Tournament already tucked away in his locker.
Last August, Mickelson edged out Thomas Björn by one shot as the US PGA spilled over into Monday at Baltusrol, and fate has paired the Dane and the American again along with The Barclays Scottish Open winner, Tim Clark of South Africa.
Vijay Singh of Fiji goes into the US Open riding a wave of confidence after clinching another US PGA Tour victory in last weekend’s Barclays Classic, not far from Winged Foot at Westchester Country Club.
"I think that was the biggest win I've had in a long, long time," Singh said after notching his 29th career victory on the US PGA Tour and first since the Buick Classic last July. "It gives me a lot of confidence. It gives me the feeling that if you get in contention I can finish it off. It makes people thing that once they see my name up there, yeah, I'm back, so look out."
Two-time Champions Ernie Els and Retief Goosen set off in pursuit of their third US Opens over a formidable par 70 lay-out which will test accuracy, concentration and patience. Both South Africans appreciate the importance of those virtues in this particular Major Championship, in which par is usually a realistic winning total.
Els begins his week in the company of American Chris DiMarco and Korea’s KJ Choi while Goosen’s playing partners are Stewart Cink of the USA and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who is hoping to get into his stride after a moderate start to 2006.
With 28 players exempt and a further 11 players progressing through qualifying events in America and at Walton Heath, where eight secured a berth, the total of 39 European Tour Members surpasses last year’s record of 33 at the US Open.
Ryder Cup player Ian Poulter shared top billing with American Benjamin Hayes in the Sectional Qualifier at Brookside Golf and Country Club and Lakes Country Club, Columbus, Ohio, with rounds of 65 and 66 for a total of 131. Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and American Kevin Stadler also made it through qualifying in the US while eight players emerged smiling from the Qualifer at Walton Heath in England.
Of the exempt players, Kenneth Ferrie of England and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson will be making their debuts, while qualifiers Jyoti Randhawa of India, Schwartzel and the Englishmen Phillip Archer, Graeme Storm and Oliver Wilson, will also be making their first appearances.