SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The stage is set for a riveting U.S. Open at the revered but challenging Olympic Club with former world number one Tiger Woods seemingly back to his best, and defending champion Rory McIlroy not far off.
Woods and McIlroy are capable of electrifying the galleries with their power and precision and both are itching to return to the major winner's circle in the championship widely accepted as the most grueling of all.
It has been four long years since Woods won the most recent of his 14 majors, in a playoff for the 2008 U.S. Open, and he knows time is perhaps not on his side as he tries to hunt down the record 18 piled up by golfing great Jack Nicklaus.
While his form has come in fits and starts this year, Woods issued a timely U.S. Open warning to his rivals with his remarkable two-shot victory at the Memorial tournament two weeks ago in Dublin, Ohio.
"It feels good," Woods, a three-times U.S. Open champion, told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round on the Lake Course at Olympic. "I've played the golf course now a couple of times and it's quick out there.
"I'm excited about playing, excited about this golf course. I've played a lot here in college and it's great to be back," added the 36-year-old American, who attended nearby Stanford University.
Woods, who tied for 18th when the U.S. Open was last held at Olympic in 1998, is well aware of the demands on precise ball-striking made by the fast running Lake Course with its tilting dogleg fairways.
"This probably tests the player more than any other championship," he said. "We have to shape the ball. We have to hit the ball high. We have to hit the ball low. Our short game's got to be dialed in.
"You can look at the history of guys who were in contention or who ended up winning there, all were wonderful drivers of the golf ball and good, solid iron players."
World number two McIlroy arrived at Olympic in a reasonably positive frame of mind, having ended a run of three missed cuts around the world with a tie for seventh at the St. Jude Classic on Sunday.
"It was a really good idea that I went there," said the 23-year-old Northern Irishman, who made a late decision to add the event to his playing schedule.
"I definitely feel more comfortable about my game going into this week if I hadn't have played. So I'm happy that I did.
"The last 12 months have been fantastic. I felt like I played very well in that time. I am really looking forward to this week and giving it a good go in trying to defend."
McIlroy, who won his third PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic in March, romped to a stunning eight-shot victory in last year's U.S. Open on a rain-softened Congressional layout.
This week, though, the players are likely to face a more typical U.S. Open challenge with firm, fast-running conditions at a venue where the fairways are tricky to hit and the greens are small.
"It's a tough track," said British world number Luke Donald, who has yet to claim his first major title. "It challenges every part of your game from the first tee shot to when you walk off 18.
"It's a grind. Even on the easy holes, there's always trouble lurking. And you've just got to play solid golf."
While the Lake Course offers a back nine where players are able to pick up strokes, the first six holes constitute possibly the toughest start to any major championship.
"That's a very tough stretch," said British world number three Lee Westwood, who has recorded two top-three finishes in the last four years at the U.S. Open.
"I guess if you get through them in level par you'd be delighted. You just try and get off to a steady start and not make too many mistakes.
"Come out of it unscathed and try to pick up a few birdies on the way in, because it gets so much easier after that," he added, grinning broadly.
A host of other in-form players can lay claim to being genuine contenders this week, among them long-hitting American Dustin Johnson who completed his preparations by winning his sixth PGA Tour title at the St. Jude Classic on Sunday.
Other likely candidates include British world number seven Justin Rose and Americans Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Masters champion Bubba Watson.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in San Francisco; Editing by Frank Pingue)