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US Open 2018: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson still moving US Open needle

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Tiger Woods defied injury to win a remarkable 2008 US Open in a playoff with Rocco Mediate. Tiger Woods defied injury to win a remarkable 2008 US Open in a playoff with Rocco Mediate.
Phil Mickelson is bidding to win the career grand slam at Shinnecock Hills. Phil Mickelson is bidding to win the career grand slam at Shinnecock Hills.
By Rob Hodgetts CNN

(CNN) -- It's been 10 long years since he hobbled and fist-pumped his way to the US Open title on what was later diagnosed as a broken leg.

Tiger Woods hasn't won a major since that eye-popping performance at Torrey Pines in 2008.

But the former world No. 1 is back and hungry for success at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island this week.

Debate has raged over what would be the greater achievement -- a 15th major for Woods after his life skirmishes and four back surgeries, or old rival Phil Mickelson finally landing a US Open after six runner-up spots to secure the career grand slam.

The jury is out.

"You're comparing Cadillacs," said world No.2 Justin Thomas.

Woods' mind is certainly willing, and his 42-year-old body has held up during a promising return to the game this season.

Playing his first US Open since 2015, the buzz is back.

"He definitely moves the needle," said Australia's former world No.1 Jason Day. "Everyone want to see what he looks like, how big he is, the myth behind Tiger Woods."

Day has become close friends with the American, and he ribbed his friend in text messages about his outfit the last time the US Open was held at Shinnecock Hills in 2004.

"I sent him a picture. He had MC Hammer pants on. I'm like, 'hey man, look at these pants, they're terrible,'" said Day, who, like a number of pros, is holing up in his RV near the course to avoid the notorious Long Island traffic.

Woods, who is staying on his luxury $20 million yacht Privacy in Sag Harbor, didn't bite.

But according to Day, his usual banter suggests his competitive mojo is back after some dark times during his various injury layoffs.

Mickelson should also be in the twilight of his career -- he turns 48 Saturday -- but he will be roared on by an adoring New York crowd who willed him to second behind South African Retief Goosen on a tumultuous and controversial final day in 2004.

A first win for five years earlier this season suggests the mercurial left-hander still has the firepower to compete at the top level. And these days, it's all directed at the US Open as he bids to become only the fifth player to win each of golf's four majors after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods.

"It would mean an awful lot," said Mickelson, playing in his 27th US Open after missing last year's event to attend his daughter's graduation.

"I feel like if you win all four you're a complete player. The five guys who have done it are the five best to have ever played the game. I want to be the sixth."

But while the two 40-somethings make for a neat narrative, the story may have moved on.

The favorite for the 118th US Open is the big-hitting Dustin Johnson, reinstated as world No.1 after sealing Sunday's St Jude Classic with a walk-off eagle.

The 2016 champion will play alongside Woods and Thomas in the first two rounds Thursday and Friday.

Thomas, 25, won his breakthrough major in the US PGA last August and is one of the game's most exciting young talents, along with childhood friend Jordan Spieth, the 2015 winner and three-time major champion.

Spieth has struggled of late, notably with his usually red-hot putter, but the Texan has come the realization it's a "long career and results aren't going to come by wanting them to come."

He will begin his campaign alongside Mickelson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who is still chasing a fifth major and first since 2014.

McIlroy was stung at the Masters as he failed to challenge eventual winner Patrick Reed on the final day, but the 2011 US Open champion has been enjoying his time on Long Island, playing exclusive nearby courses such as the National and Friar's Head.

And as one of the game's big-hitters, he has been licking his lips in practice at the generous fairways on offer at Shinnecock Hills.

In 2004, sun and a drying wind made the historic, links-like Shinnecock Hills course devilishly difficult, with some greens needing watering between groups and players aiming for the bunkers off the tee on the short seventh because the putting surface was too slick to hold full shots.

Mickelson, however, is happy the United States Golf Association has learned its lesson for this year.

"This is one of my favorite courses," he said. "It's the best set up that we've seen. I feel as though luck has been taken out as much as possible to where skill is the primary factor."

'Dreams happen'

The US Open claims to be the most "open" major of golf's four big events, with a field of 156, whittled down from about 9,000 hopefuls -- including amateurs, jobbing club professionals and journeymen touring pros -- around the world.

"If you've got the game, if you've got the ability, the US Open empowers you to pursue your dream," said Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of rules and Open championships.

All the qualifiers have stories to tell. How about this one from Canadian Garret Rank, a 30-year-old whose day job is as an NHL referee? The accomplished amateur golfer, who just finished working at the Stanley Cup playoffs, came through sectional qualifying in Georgia last week. He also beat testicular cancer in 2011.

"I've got a real job, so I would consider this like the pinnacle of my golf career this week," said Rank, who is one of 20 amateurs in the field. "I'm gonna go out there and have some internal expectations on how I want to play and what I want to do but at the end of the day, this is just a celebration for me and my family and friends."

Last year American Xander Schauffele entered the US Open at Erin Hills ranked 378th in the world. He tied for fifth, and ended the season as PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.

"Dreams happen. They start at the US Open," added Hall.

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