- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — The U.S. Open has come down to a duel between golf’s howitzer and a posse of the game’s young guns.

Australian Aaron Baddeley marched to the top of the leader board at 2-over (212) yesterday, leading the charge for a host of hungry young players hoping to keep Tiger Woods (4-over, 214) from collecting his 13th major victory.

“I’ve played with Tiger in two Masters or something like that, so it’s not abnormal to play with Tiger in a major,” said the 26-year-old Baddeley, who will experience his first Sunday as a major leader when he tees off with Woods in the final pairing at 3 p.m. today. “Tiger is the best player in the world. But I feel like I’m playing well. My swing is good. I hit a lot of nice shots today. And I do feel great with the putter.”

Baddeley, considered one of the game’s hottest young commodities when he won the 1999 Australian Open over the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman as a 17-year-old amateur, always has been a magician with the flat stick. But after turning professional in 2000, the son of Mario Andretti’s longtime head mechanic lost his swing. After six disappointing seasons of searching for that swing on the Nationwide and PGA Tours, Baddeley finally scrapped his childhood move and switched to the “stack and tilt” swing philosophy originally developed by former Australian pro Mac O’Grady.

Equipped with the new move, Baddeley recorded his breakout PGA Tour victory last season at Hilton Head and then added the FBR Open to his resume earlier this season. He never has been a factor at the majors, failing to finish among the top 50 in a slew of previous starts. But that’s not entirely a fair assessment, as only of late has his tee-to-green game begun to match the level of skill he always has demonstrated in his short game.

This week, Baddeley has managed to keep the ball in play at 7,230-yard, par-70 Oakmont. And that’s all that’s necessary for contention when wielding a Crenshaw-esque blade.

Yesterday, Baddeley carded a second consecutive 70 around kindler, gentler Oakmont, which the entire field agreed had been watered liberally overnight. Almost as expected, Baddeley leads the field in putting (28.33). And given his second coming over the last year, the Australian carries a two-stroke lead into tomorrow’s play feeling far more confident than perhaps one would expect for a man who has never come close to flirting with major greatness.

“I do feel like I’m ready,” Baddeley said when asked if he felt primed for Slam success. “If I look back over my career and my life and the struggles that I’ve had, I didn’t have the character to stand up under the pressure when I needed to. Those years were perfect for me to ingrain the character in me that I needed to come and play in a major.”

Woods certainly could have used a bit of Baddeley’s extraordinary gift around the greens yesterday. Golf’s 31-year-old goliath played one of the more spectacular tee-to-green rounds of his major career during the softened third session, finding fairway after fairway with his oft-errant driver and hitting the first 17 greens on the layout en route to a 69 that easily could have been a handful better had any of a half-dozen putts from less than 15 feet dropped for him.

“Obviously, it could have been really low, but on these greens …” said Woods, who missed birdie putts from just beyond point-blank range on Nos. 1, 5, 7, 12 and 13 and lipped out from long range at the brutal par-3, 8th. “I hit a lot of good putts that grazed the edge, but, hey, I put myself right there in the tournament, right in the mix. As of right now, I’m in second place, so I’m right there.”

Ordinarily, one would almost assume a 13th major victory for Woods from such a position. After all, none of the five other players at 5-over (215) or better boasts a single major victory, much less Woods‘ gaudy dozen. But Woods was in almost identical position entering the final round of the Masters two months ago (trailing Stuart Appleby by a stroke). But to the surprise of most observers, Zach Johnson came from one further behind to swipe the green jacket from Woods.

And Johnson’s victory was similar to most of Woods‘ few final-round major failures in that nobody expected much of the undecorated player from Iowa. The other members of the game’s one-time Big Five (Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh) always have struggled when Tiger steps to the fore, a situation in which less-decorated players (Bob May, Rich Beem and Johnson) have somehow shined.

Woods has exactly that kind of company today, as he begins play surrounded by not just Baddeley, but 28-year-old American Bubba Watson (5-over, 215) and twentysomethings Paul Casey (215) and Justin Rose (215) of England.

“They’re going to deal with emotions that they’ve probably never dealt with before,” Woods said of his challengers. “It helps to have experience. I’ve been there before, and I know what it takes.”

Among the young guns, perhaps the most dangerous threat to Woods‘ quest for a third Open title would seem to be Casey, the 29-year-old Ryder Cup star who proved his Oakmont mettle on Friday by posting an event-low 66.

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