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U.S. Open headlines waiting to be written

By James Montague, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • California's Pebble Beach to host the U.S. Open this week for the first time since 2000
  • CNN looks at the big stories that could break at second major golf event of 2010
  • Tiger Woods is battling to regain his form after personal problems and injury
  • He could lose the number one spot to Phil Mickelson, who has yet to win the event

(CNN) -- Until this year, the golf world had been a fairly easy place to predict over the past decade, given Tiger Woods' dominance.

But this week's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in California comes at a time when all bets are off -- dozens of players are in now in genuine contention to win the second of 2010's golf majors.

With world No. 1 Woods -- a three-time winner of the event -- struggling in his comeback after half a year ruined by personal problems and injury, this could be one of the most exciting tournaments in years.

CNN takes a look into its crystal ball for signs of the U.S. Open's seven unwritten headlines.

1. The Tiger Woods meltdown continues

They will compete well to show the golfing world that Asian golf has truly come of age
--Kyi Hla Han, Asian Tour
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What a difference a decade makes. In 2000 a fresh-faced Tiger smashed the record to win the U.S. Open by 15 strokes before going on to dominate the sport. And then... well, we all know what happened next. With Tiger's indiscretions laid bare, and following a self-imposed hiatus to sort out his problems, he still seems some way off the pace.

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His fourth-place return to the Masters in April under intense pressure could have been seen as a victory given the circumstances. But since then he has struggled, even missing the cut at one tournament before pulling out of the Players Championship last month citing a neck injury.

Nothing suggests the U.S. Open will be any different. But then again Tiger does have the ability to create a narrative so astonishing that a Hollywood script writer would deem it too fanciful.

2. Nice guys do come first

And yet, for all the criticisms and poor form, Woods still sits atop the world golf rankings, the same place he has been for more than five years. But not for much longer, if Phil Mickelson gets his way.

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As a litany of ex-strippers and hostesses lined up to sell their Tiger stories to the tabloid press, Mickelson secured an emotional third Masters victory while both his wife and mother battled breast cancer.

"Lefty," as he's known, has finished second at the U.S. Open on five occasions and there will be no more popular victor if Mickelson claims his first title and with it the number one spot.

Can Brits end 40-year wait at Pebble Beach?

3. The British clean up

Given the current stand-off between President Obama and BP, there probably isn't a worse time for a horde of British golfers to descend on Pebble Beach.

Still, the British arrive at the U.S. Open with five players in the top 10: Englishmen Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey plus Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy.

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Westwood in particular is worth watching. He has recorded three top-10 finishes at U.S. Opens, including fifth at Pebble Beach in 2000 and third in 2008. Maybe 2010 is the year that the Brits really do clean up.

4. All the young dudes: an amateur in contention?

Amateurs aren't what they used to be. Gone are the slightly portly, middle-aged hackers of yore. The new generation are lean, mean golfing machines barely out of their teens and hungry for success.

This year's group includes 18-year-old U.S. Amateur Champion Byeong-Hun An. The Korean missed the cut at his first PGA tournament at this year's Masters, but has been tipped for great things.

Not many amateurs have blazed a trail in recent years -- brilliant performances by Justin Rose and Chris Wood at the British Open being an exception -- but this year's crop look particularly exciting.

And don't forget, Bobby Jones famously won the grand slam of golf's four major titles as an amateur and then retired at the grand old age of 28.

5. The Asian invasion

There was a time when Asian players were, if not derided, then certainly strangled by kind condescension while on tour. Not any longer.

The growing strength of the Asian game means that 11 players will hail from the East, including South Korea's Y.E. Yang, who became the first Asian golfer to win a major, and Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee, Asia's current number one.

"There is a big representation of Asian Tour members at the U.S. Open this week," Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han told his organization's Web site.

"We are confident they will compete well to show the golfing world that Asian golf has truly come of age."

On current form, you wouldn't want to bet against him.

6. It's a lottery

Even if we think we have covered all the bases by mentioning Woods, Mickelson, half of the top 10 and all of Asia, the U.S. Open still has a tendency to throw the form book out of the window.

Who can forget how in 2008 Rocco Mediate, then ranked 158th in the world, took the now 115-year-old event to only its third ever play-off against Woods?

Four of the past five winners started with odds of over 100/1 to win the title. Plus Pebble Beach just isn't the same course that Woods smashed in 2000 either. Expect the unexpected.

7. U.S. Open 1-0 World Cup

There seems to be little that can stand in the way of soccer's World Cup juggernaut. Even the NBA can't compete, with more people in the U.S. watching the United States versus England game than any of the first four basketball playoffs.

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But with few goals so far, not to mention the constant din of the vuvuzela blaring in the background, the drama of the U.S. Open should at last push South Africa off the front page.

World Cup? What World Cup?