Tiger Woods smiles during a practice round prior to the...

Tiger Woods smiles during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. (June 12, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO -- If Rory McIlroy were just an average golf fan, rather than being a golf fan who will be busy trying to defend his U.S. Open championship, he knows just what he would be doing Thursday and Friday: Watching the Open on TV and focusing on the multi-megawatt group of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

"I'm sure," McIlroy said, "you'll see some fireworks."

Mickelson, who might be expected to groan about the potential distraction, described the grouping this way: "It's fabulous."

There is one big reason for that. "I get excited to play with Tiger. I love it," Mickelson said. "I think we all do."

Even now, four years since Woods last won a major, he still is the golfer against whom other golfers measure themselves. And Woods still is measuring himself against history.

Yesterday at the Olympic Club, Woods, 36, was asked if he has enough time as a major contender to win five more and pass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. "Well, Jack did it at 46, right? So I've got 10," Woods said, meaning 10 years. Then referring to the 2009 British Open, he added, "[Tom] Watson almost pulled it off at 59. That's the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit. The playing careers have extended."

Woods' drive to become a major champion again is the main story line. What makes this week different is that the U.S. Golf Association has placed two juicy subplots alongside him: Can Mickelson, the second most popular player in American golf, finally win a U.S. Open? And how will Watson play in his first major after becoming a national celebrity by winning the Masters?

Watson knows where he stands in the pecking order. "They're not going to be focused on what I'm doing. Hopefully, I'm not going to be focused on what they're doing," he said. "It will be fun, though. It's two legends."

Woods seemed a bit surprised by the grouping. Only twice before have he and Mickelson started a major together: the 2006 PGA and 2008 U.S. Open, both of which Woods won. He alluded to the fact that in PGA Tour events, he and Mickelson are usually in different sides of the draw, to make sure one of them will be involved in the day's TV coverage.

But the USGA likes spicing up the groups. Long-putter users Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Adam Scott will play together. So will recent major runners-up Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Dufner. So will the top three players in the official world golf rankings, Luke Donald-McIlroy-Lee Westwood. All of them will be soundly overshadowed by Woods-Mickelson-Watson.

No one is calling them the Big Three, in the manner of Arnold Palmer-Nicklaus-Gary Player. It is more like a Big One and two other interesting stories, despite the fact Mickelson has fared better in recent head-to-head matchups with Woods -- notably his final-round 64 to win the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February.

"One of the issues I've had this year is I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday," Mickelson said. "I won't be, this week."

The reason is that there is only one Woods, now and for the foreseeable future. As his former Stanford teammate and current Oregon coach Casey Martin said, "Some kids that you're going to see coming up out of the college and amateur ranks are phenomenal players. American golf is in great hands going forward with some great kids. But I don't see any Tiger Woods."

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