Is it HIS time?Phil Mickelson has a record six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, the most recent coming a year ago at Merion. However, if he can manage to claim the one major title that's eluded him, he'll become the sixth player to win all four professional majors. A lot of factors seem to be working against Mickelson, though, as he arrives at Pinehurst without a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season and amid an ongoing FBI investigation into possible insider trading. One prediction we can safely make? Win or lose, we'll hear the phrase "career Grand Slam" more this week than ever before.
How different will Pinehurst No. 2 play compared to 1999 and 2005?The short answer? A lot. Since the 2005 U.S. Open, the course has undergone a major renovation under Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Gone is the traditional thick U.S. Open rough and in its place are sandy areas filled with wiregrass bushes and natural vegetation. The course can also be stretched out to 7,565 yards now, making the par-70 layout the longest venue per stroke in U.S. Open history. Oh yeah, the famed Donald Ross-designed green complexes are still diabolical. This should be a fantastic -- and unique test -- for the world's best players.
Which Rory McIlroy will show up?McIlroy's 2014 has been a success compared to a disappointing 2013, but we still don't know what to expect from the now 25-year-old from week to week, day to day or even nine holes to nine holes. At times, he looks like the dominant player we've seen in his two major victories. At others, he looks completely lost. Still, there's a reason why he's the odds-on favorite. Despite his "struggles," McIlroy has six top-10 finishes in eight PGA Tour stroke-play starts and he recently won the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA, just days after announcing his breakup with fiancee Caroline Wozniacki. If he puts four good rounds together, it should be his tournament to lose.
What can we expect from a Tiger-less U.S. Open?Sadly, we're getting used to this. Look for TV ratings to be down, but not the quality of golf. In the five majors Woods has missedas a professional, four of them have produced winners from inside the top 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Obviously, the person most disappointed by Woods missing this major is Woods. In each of the two U.S. Opens held at Pinehurst, Tiger came up just short (T-3 in 1999; second in 2005).
Who will be this year's Justin Rose?In 2013, Rose broke out of the "best player without a major" conversation with his triumph at Merion. Matt Kuchar seems to be a logical candidate to do the same at Pinehurst. The PGA Tour's most consistent golfer in recent years enters this week third in the FedEx Cup standings on the strength of nine top 10s in 15 events, including a win at Harbour Town. Kuchar had a share of the lead on Sunday at the year's first major before slipping to T-5. The fifth-ranked player in the world is too good to not eventually win one of golf's biggest trophies and his tremendous short game should come in handy at Pinehurst.
Will anyone be this year's Michael Campbell?The last time the U.S. Open was held at Pinehurst, Campbell, who had made it through sectional qualifying and was ranked 80th in the world, pulled off a surprising victory. Nine years later, 82 players have similar dreams of winning after earning their spots the hard way. Of the qualifiers, two jump out: Paul Casey and Justin Leonard. Casey, once ranked World No. 3, has been on the comeback trail, recently shooting a back-nine 27 at the Byron Nelson. He's finished in the top 25 in five of six tournaments. Leonard hasn't produced the same recent results, but he's the only player in this week's field who finished in the top 25 in both previous Opens at Pinehurst.
Can the Grinder end his drought?Jim Furyk hasn't won on the PGA Tour since the 2010 Tour Championship, but his recent runner-ups at the Players and Wells Fargo have the 43-year-old among the favorites at his favorite tournament. Furyk has six top fives at the U.S. Open, including his lone major win in 2003. Pinehurst's length could make things difficult for Furyk, but with early reports of the course playing firm and fast, distance might not be that big of a problem. Plus Furyk has that reliable short game (No. 1 on the PGA Tour in scrambling this season) to rely on. The U.S. Open is considered golf's toughest tournament, but Furyk is one of the few players who seems to relish its challenge.
What are the odds of a Bubba Slam?According to British sportsbook Paddy Power, 250/1. In other words, not great. However, don't forget about the Masters champ this week. Watson has gone MC, T-18, T-63, MC, T-32 in his previous five U.S. Opens, but Pinehurst's setup seems to favor him more than what we've traditionally seen from the USGA. If he wins a second consecutive major, we'll hear the phrase "calendar Grand Slam" a lot more at next month's British Open.
Is this really Johnny Miller's last U.S. Open?Sadly, it seems so. This will be NBC's last broadcastof the event before Fox takes over on that monstrous 12-year deal that kicks in next year. Savor it, people. Savor it.