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Published: Wednesday, 6/16/2004

Top players at top of their games

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Phil Mickelson laughs when he's asked about his position heading into this week's U.S. Open as the only golfer who could win golf's elusive, if not mystical, Grand Slam of the 2004 major championships.

"It's amazing what has changed the last two months," said Mickelson, who won his first major in April at the Masters. "We've gone from 'Will he ever win a major?' to 'Can he win a Grand Slam?' That's really something."

So is the quality of golf being played by the top-rated players entering the Open at Shinnecock Hills. Rarely have so many good players been playing such good golf.

For all his off-road adventures, courtesy of a wayward driver, Tiger Woods continues to enjoy the world's No. 1 ranking while scoring three straight top-four finishes.

Ernie Els, who was poised for an Augusta playoff before Mickelson made a dramatic birdie putt to win on the 72nd hole, has played five straight weeks and has produced four top-10 finishes, including a victory at the Memorial.

Els owns two Open titles - 1994 at Oakmont; '97 at Congressional - but insists that he wasn't anywhere near the golfer then that he is today.

"It's almost like things came too easily," Els said. "Now I

understand what it takes and what it means."

Els used the Memorial win to edge ahead of Vijay Singh and into the No. 2 slot in the world rankings, but that's not to say Singh has been in a free fall. He has two wins and five top-10 finishes in his last seven tournaments starting with the Masters.

"This has been a fun year for a lot of players," Mickelson said. "And don't forget Sergio [Garcia]. He had a great win last week [Buick Classic at Westchester] and a great win at the Byron Nelson and after not playing his best for the last year and a half or so, he's back on top and it's nice to see him there.

"Vijay and Ernie have been terrific and Tiger is playing well, in the top five every week, it seems, so a lot of guys are at the top of their games. Add in guys like David Toms and Davis Love, who is due to win again soon, and it's pretty wide open."

Mickelson (69.06), Els (69.11), Singh (69.29) and Woods (69.67) rank Nos. 1-4 in PGA Tour scoring average. Garcia and Love are also in the top 10.

Woods has gone seven majors without a victory after winning six out of nine, but he isn't far from Mickelson's mind.

"We all know when Tiger reaches his level of play he is still almost unstoppable," Mickelson said. "I think we all appreciate that he's been sharing the wealth lately, but you never know how long that will last."

Woods won the World Match Play title earlier this year while Mickelson, Singh, Garcia, Toms and Els all have won since the start of April. With the exception of Garcia, all own major champ

ionships.

"The top players have been playing well," said Els. "And those are the players that have more experience in tournaments like the U.S. Open. So I think those are who you would expect to do well. And I'd like to mention there's no reason why I shouldn't be in contention this week."

A number of golf's elite are surely thinking the same thing.



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