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Woods the player to beat at rain-softened Merion

Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks on the 14th fairway during a practice round for the 2013 U.S. Open golf championship at the Merion Golf Club i
Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks on the 14th fairway during a practice round for the 2013 U.S. Open golf championship at the Merion Golf Club i

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

ARDMORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Merion Golf Club has been linked with some of the most iconic moments in championship golf and Tiger Woods will aim to add a chapter of his own at this week's U.S. Open where he is a heavy favorite.

A host of other players can lay claim to being genuine contenders for the year's second major, which begins on Thursday, but Woods is widely viewed as the likeliest winner based on his outstanding record and the often dominant form he has shown this season.

Though Woods did not fare well in his most recent start, languishing joint 65th in a field of 73 at the Memorial Tournament 10 days ago, he has triumphed four times on the 2013 PGA Tour and is clearly the player to beat at Merion.

"Tiger Woods is playing some awesome golf," fellow American Matt Kuchar, who won the Memorial title to give himself a significant boost for this week, told reporters on Wednesday.

"Winning four times already is just amazing. He seems to be back clicking again and when he's on, he can do things that most of the rest of us can't do. It's fun to have him playing well.

"But the great thing about the game of golf, anybody who tees it up has a chance to win. Every field we play on the PGA Tour, the top to bottom, there's a lot of strength."

Woods has revived memories of his glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s with much of his play this year and he will be eager to end a major title drought dating back to his playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Though the American world number one was bitterly disappointed with his overall game at the Memorial Tournament, and especially his putting, he has put that down as a blip in an otherwise successful season.

"I didn't really do much that I was real pleased about, but it was just one of those weeks," 14-times major champion Woods said. "It happens. And move on from there.

"I had a good week of practice last week at home. We had a tropical storm roll through there, I guess it was getting us ready for this one."

SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS

Bad weather has already been a huge factor at Merion with more than six inches (15cm) of rain saturating the area since Friday and severe thunderstorms have been forecast for the latter part of Thursday's opening round.

"You're not going to see a firm U.S. Open this year," said twice former U.S. Open champion Ernie Els. "We're going to have a soft golf course ... all week.

"It means that if you're on your game you're going to have a lot of birdie putts. There are quite a few par-fours where you've just got to put it in the fairway ... then you've got quite a short second shot.

"I'm not going to say anybody is going to shoot a 62 at a U.S. Open, but you've got more birdie opportunities than ever."

Merion's iconic East Course will be hosting its fifth U.S. Open this week, but its first in 32 years after long being regarded as too short to host a major.

The par-70 layout located in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore has been stretched to 6,996 yards since Australian David Graham triumphed by three strokes in the 1981 edition, and Woods appreciates that precise shot-making is required for success.

This is a course, after all, where Bobby Jones completed his "grand slam" by winning the 1930 U.S. amateur, where Ben Hogan claimed the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after being involved in a near-fatal motor vehicle accident and where Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff to win the 1971 U.S. Open.

"If you look at the list of champions, they have all been really good shot-makers," said three-times U.S. Open champion Woods. "They have all been able to shape the golf ball.

"That's what it lends itself to. You have to be able to shape the golf ball, and you have to be so disciplined to play the course."

As ever at a U.S. Open, the ability to minimize errors and to stay patient on contoured greens and tight fairways flanked by thick, graduated rough will be defining traits in the make-up of this week's champion.

The list of potential winners is long and includes Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia, Englishmen Justin Rose and Luke Donald, 2010 winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and former Masters champion Zach Johnson, who is known for his brilliant wedge game.

Northern Irish world number two Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion at Congressional, is another likely contender as he bids to claim his first tournament victory this season after winning five times worldwide last year.

(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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