SAN DIEGO - They can call this the U.S. Open if they want to, but come tomorrow morning, we all know it's really Tiger and Phil, mano a mano.

Just for the fireworks and sporting fun of it, for the first two rounds of the Open, the U.S. Golf Association has paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Butch and Sundance of golf, No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively.

No. 3, Adam Scott, will round out the marquee threesome, but who is kidding whom? For any sports fan yearning for a good rivalry, Scott might as well wear a lampshade on his head. The first two rounds of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines will be all about Tiger and Phil.

"Awesome," Mickelson, who has never won the Open, said of the pairing yesterday. "I wish that we had it more."

Woods agreed. "I think it's exciting for the fans, exciting for the players," said the two-time Open winner, in 2000 at Pebble Beach and 2002 at Bethpage. "We are all looking forward to it."

It wouldn't be such a big deal except, of course, they are the matchup and the battle everyone wants. That and the fact that it is so rare.

Only once before have Woods and Mickelson been paired for the first two rounds of a major - the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah in Illinois. For the record, Woods not only beat Mickelson by 3 shots in that Thursday-Friday pairing, he also won the championship.

This time around, the pairing is even better because the stakes are higher, for a couple of reasons.

For Woods, this week marks his return to competition for the first time since he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee two days after the Masters.

Coy with his answers yesterday, Woods wouldn't complain that his knee could affect his performance this week. But he conceded that he has not walked a complete 18 holes since the surgery and that his knee still hurts a little.

But no excuses.

"Is it fully recovered? Probably not," he said. ". . . It's a little sore, but not anything that I haven't dealt with before. I'll be fine."

There is also the Torrey Pines factor. Not only have Woods and Mickelson, both native Southern Californians, played Torrey Pines countless times since they were children, they also love it - every hole, every inch, every nuance.

Woods won the Junior World here. As a pro, he has won the Buick Invitational here six times. Mickelson has won the Buick three times.

"The golf course is in perfect shape," said Woods, who now lives in Florida. "The greens are perfectly smooth. It's going to be a great test."

Mickelson was more effusive.

"I can't believe this is the U.S. Open Championship here at Torrey Pines," he said. "It's something we've dreamed about."

So far, Mickelson has four second-place finishes in the Open, but victory has eluded him, most famously at Winged Foot in 2006, when he blew the title with a double-bogey on the final hole.

"I love it," Mickelson said of the Open, adding with a laugh, "I just haven't gotten the love back."

For Mickelson, who still lives in the area - in the ultra-high-rent district of Rancho Santa Fe - the pressure to win this week could be suffocating.

In front of family, friends and hometown fans, on a course he knows as well as any, Mickelson understands that he never will get a better shot.

To improve his chances, he has almost totally cut himself off from his usual commitments - cut down on interviews, autograph-signing sessions, sponsor schmoozing.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to compete in the U.S. Open on a course I grew up on, in the prime of my career," he said. "I want to give myself every opportunity to play my best golf this week."

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