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LONG DRIVER, GOOD LAUGH ARE A MUST

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Never bet with the heart. That means no Jack Nicklaus. Never bet the chalk. So much for Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and defending champion Corey Pavin.

Stay away from "hot" horses. So long, Ernie Els and Mark O'Meara. Stay away from old horses, young horses and slimmed-down ones, too, as well as anyone whose behavior recalls the far end of the horse's anatomy. So toss Tom Watson, David Duval, Colin Montgomerie and those kids who don't think paying dues is part of the equation.So. Who's left?

The guy who's going to win the U.S. Open, naturally. The guy who hits the ball on a line straight enough to hang clothes on and gets down in two from everywhere inside Tibet. Those are things you absolutely have to do to win a major on a Donald Ross course. One more thing the guy will have to have: a sense of humor.

Think Oakland Hills isn't a funny place? Ask T.C. Chen (actually Chen Tze-chung). The slender pro came out of nowhere (actually Taiwan, followed by stops on the PGA and Asian tours) in 1985 and owned the Open through the first 58 holes. Then he double-hit a little pitch from off the fourth green and lost, became known as Two-Chip Chen, and exiled himself to Japan. Today, he is reluctant to take phone calls for fear of dredging up memories.

Some fun.

Oakland Hills is also the place where Bobby Jones lost an Open, in 1924, to a skinny guy, Cyril Walker; where, in 1937, Ralph Guldahl paused to comb his hair before putting out on 18; and where, in 1951, Ben Hogan shot a closing 67, which the demanding man himself called his greatest round ever.

Of the 450 rounds played by the competitors that year, Hogan's was one of only two under par. In that regard, the years have treated the course well. There is a growing consensus that given the 6,740-yard, par-70 setup, the guy who wins will be hovering around even.

"Nobody is going to break par - I don't think," Pavin said earlier this week.

He then demonstrated his sincerity by going out to practice 60-foot lag putts. While that's something you don't see on tour often, it will be in evidence this weekend. Five-thousand-square-foot greens are common on Ross courses and generous by any standards, and at least one at Oakland Hills goes 6,000. Unfortunately, almost as common to his greens are mounds rising directly up out of the middle of those same greens to ensure plenty of roller-coaster finishes.

Get on the wrong side of a hump, or on the wrong tier at holes as late as No. 17 - a 200-yard, par-3 - or No. 18 - a 465-yard dogleg that's a par-5 for members, but a par-4 for the pros - and you sense that Ross went in for elaborate pranks. Which, in a roundabout way, will determine the guy who wins this Open.

Nicklaus will cut his string of appearances at 40 if he makes good on his promise and makes this his last for a while. Smart move. At age 56, too many long treks just to reach those diabolical greens will wear his patience thin.

Perseverance won't be Faldo's problem; rough and a lack of distance with the driver will. None of the Englishman's major titles have come on a course with a lot of the stuff and he can ill afford to drop a third wedge and carry a weed-whacker at Oakland Hills instead. Ditto for Pavin.

Other dismissals: Norman is still hearing voices; Els may have put the PGA collapse in the past, but he still drives it too wild; and forget Oakmont, Els will be buying the devil dinner for years for that one.

O'Meara is so hot he even started endorsing Rogaine, a hair-treatment product, after noticing "a divot" on the back of his head. But here's something his backers should have noticed sooner: O'Meara has missed the cut in his last six Opens.

So Watson made a few putts in one lousy tournament; would you still want him over a 4-footer with your hamster's life at stake? And as for Duval and Montgomerie - the first one is expanding and the second one shrinking and everybody knows you don't bet people experiencing weight swings. That's why Roseanne and Tom split up.

So take the guy with patience, imagination, experience, an adventurous spirit, a driver that can be throttled back and a short game so good he could peel the last three letters of Titleist off the ball.

Which southpaw Phil Mickelson will do, shedding the next great player never to win a major label. He turns 26 the day of the final round, he's won three times already this year, including once in Texas, his first victory outside the mountain time zone.

"I'm ready to move east of the Mississippi," he said. And ready in a big way.