Next week when the focus of the golf world turns to the U.S. Open, most of the hype will be about a potential showdown between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Not only are they the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, respectively, but this year's Open venue, Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, is a familiar favorite for both. Between them, they have won the Buick Invitational, which is played at Torrey Pines each year, nine times (Woods six, Mickelson three).

Still, anyone who spent a glorious afternoon yesterday at the ACE Club in Lafayette Hill for the 10th annual Exelon Invitational may have seen a potential Open champion in Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Aaron Baddeley or K.J. Choi.

Furyk, ranked eighth in the world, already has demonstrated he can win a major (the 2003 Open). Stricker, ranked seventh, has been one of the hottest players for much of the last year and a half.

Choi, ranked ninth and a picture of consistency, has played his way into at least a mention in any conversation about best players who have not won a major. Baddeley, ranked 18th and the least experienced of the players in the Exelon, led last year's Open at Oakmont through three rounds before collapsing with an 80 on Sunday.

In yesterday's Ryder Cup-style match, Baddeley (Australia) and Choi (South Korea) won, 3 and 1, over the Americans, Furyk and Stricker. The winners pocketed $80,000 each, the losers $60,000 apiece.

The event's host, Furyk, was asked how he would handicap the four players heading into the Open.

"If it had been last fall, I'd have to pick 'Strick' because he was on fire," Furyk said. "He has kind of cooled off a little this spring."

As for himself, Furyk downplayed any chance of his winning a second Open title this year.

"My game is in mediocre shape right now," he said. "I've had my finishes here and there, but a lot of 30ths." (In his last three tournaments, Furyk has finished tied for 27th, missed the cut, and tied for 39th).

Ironically, Furyk, one of the best putters in the game, blamed a balky putter for his woes.

One other problem for Furyk: He is not a big fan of Torrey Pines, which he believes does not suit his game. In his career, he has played the Buick Invitational only three times; he missed the cut twice and posted his best finish this year (tied for 37th).

"Unless I win the U.S. Open, there is a good chance I won't go back next year," he said.

As for Baddeley, Furyk cited his strong first three rounds at the Open last year without broaching the subject of the Sunday meltdown. Baddeley is also coming off a streak of middle-of-the-pack finishes.

That leaves Choi, who has missed the cut in the last two U.S. Opens, as Furyk's favorite coming out of the Exelon.

"He can stand on the range and hit 10 shots in a row and they look very similar, even for a tour pro," Furyk said. "In a U.S. Open, controlling your emotions and putting the ball in the fairway time and time again and putting the ball on their green - that consistent player, that Hoganesque player, has an advantage."

Contact staff writer Joe Logan
at 215-854-5604 or jlogan@phillynews.com.
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