5 Things: Repeat winner? Plus, Merion's Fateful Five

Webb Simpson will try to become the first player to repeat as U.S. Open champion since Curtis Strange in 1989.

— As the final 24 hours begin to tick off the clock before the first official tee ball is sent into the air at the U.S. Open, there are plenty of storylines to watch as the 156-player field tries to tame the historic Merion Golf Club.

Here are 5 Things to watch before Thursday's first round:

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1. HISTORY IS NOT ON HIS SIDE: Webb Simpson knows this factoid all too well: No one has repeated as U.S. Open champion in the past 24 years.

The last person to do it? Curtis Strange, who won in 1989 at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., after having won the 1988 Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Simpson, who has yet to win since his victory last June at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. "The biggest factor is the courses change every year. Merion is a totally different type golf course than Olympic. So you might show up at a golf course one year – for example, I think short hitters have a lot better chance of winning this tournament this year than some of the longer courses.

"But the fact is, there's only four of these (major championships) a year, and it's so hard to have your game peak and beat the best players in the world one out of four times a year."

Another U.S. Open champ, Graeme McDowell, concurred.

"I think the modern game the last 20 years, talk about technology, talk about kind of more and more great players running around," said McDowell, who won in 2010 at Pebble Beach. "It's very difficult to win tournaments these days, there's so much talent, so much ability out there. It's just difficult to win."

The last back-to-back champion in any of the four majors is Padraig Harrington, who won the Open Championship in 2007 and '08.

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2. THE BIG THREE: If you are a patron looking to do some shopping at Merion, 1:14 p.m. EDT Thursday would be the ideal time.

That's when the eyes of the golf world will shift to the superstar grouping of Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy – all of whom seem genuinely excited to play with one another.

Scott and McIlroy know what comes with playing with Woods – crowds, noise and higher expectations.

"It's always nice to be a part of a group like that," said McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion. "I like it because you're in a group like that, there's a lot of buzz and a lot of atmosphere around it and it gets you focused from the first shot."

Scott was paired with Woods and Phil Mickelson during the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, which Woods eventually won in a playoff, so he knows what he is getting into. Plus, he'll have Woods' former caddie Steve Williams to remind him every step of the way.

"I think this year, obviously, there's a lot of focus on Tiger and Rory," Scott said of the World Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players, respectively. "I know what to expect out there, I think. I don't know that – I'm probably also the third wheel this week, as well. That's why I'm No. 3 in the world. Otherwise I wouldn't be the third wheel, I guess."

The USGA began pairing the Nos. 1-3 players in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2008, putting Woods in the spotlight on numerous occasions.

"For me it's been fantastic," Woods said. "Normally we don't get those types of pairings very often. When you do, it just makes it that much more enjoyable for us as players."

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3. G-MAC ATTACK: Graeme McDowell entered this week as one of the darkhorse favorites, mostly for his ability to keep his ball in the fairway and out of trouble – which is key at Merion's tight track.

But, now with the weather slowing the course down, McDowell's lack of distance off the tee might be an obstacle.

"A firmer, faster U.S. Open is going to suit a guy like me, who is not the longest off the tee," said McDowell, who since his signature victory in the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach has placed T-14 and T-2 in the past two Opens.

McDowell had planned on getting in 36 holes of practice before his first round, but the volatile weather this week negated that attempt.

"I'm hoping it's not going to be a score-fest," said McDowell, who won the RBC Heritage Classic earlier this year in a playoff with Webb Simpson, the defending U.S. Open champion. "I don't think it is going to be a score-fest. I think it's tough. Like I said about the greens, they're soft and fast, which is a bad combination for Tour players. We'll spend the week trying to take spin off wedges. You'll see guys over the back of the greens to the back pins in massive trouble.

"I don't think it's going to be a low-scoring U.S. Open. I hope it's not going to be a low-scoring U.S. Open. We'll see. I think the golf course has enough defense."

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4. FIVE ALIVE: While players have been able only to piecemeal practice rounds together because of wet course conditions, there was a clear consensus amongst those passing through the interview room on Tuesday: Beware of Merion's final five.

The Fateful Five. The Flammable Five. The Furious Five. The Unforgettable Five. Call it what you want, but the closing stretch already has garnered respect from the field's elite.

For the most part, birdies likely will need to come on the opening 13 holes, as par at Nos. 14-18 will be the aim.

"You've got the last five holes, where you're sort of just hanging on," Rory McIlroy said. "I think once you cross that road, from the 13th green to the 14th tee box, that's where you're going to need to make the bulk of your score, because I don't think many guys are going to pick up too many shots on that final stretch."

Steve Stricker, who has yet to win a major in his standout career, echoed McIlroy.

"I think you need to make some hay there for the first 11, 12 holes and 13 holes there, and then kind of hang on, because there's some great holes coming in," Stricker said.

Graeme McDowell put the finishing holes in a class of their own, saying that wedge play will be critical.

"Nine wedges in 13 holes, and then you have to hang on for dear life those last five holes," McDowell said. "Those last five are as tough a finish – I can't think of a tougher finish that I've seen at a U.S. Open."

Tiger Woods pointed to the final two holes as the gems of the final stretch, requiring driver and long-iron to reach the 18th.

"Once you get to 14 on in, it's going to be tough, tough to make birdies, especially if they put the tees back at 17, 18," Woods said. "Those are two awfully difficult finishing holes when you've got 250 into the 17th and the last hole is 520 and you're not getting any run."

"(Monday) from the back tee, I hit driver and 3‑iron. I played the up tee with driver and 4‑iron, and I hit two good ones."

• • •

5. MOTHER NATURE IS A BEAST: The sun bathed Merion on Tuesday, with more drying expected Wednesday. However, the forecast calls for rain and thunderstorms to return for Thursday's first round.

The Thursday forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of precipitation, with hail a possibility. With more than 5 inches already having fallen at Merion since Friday, forecasters are calling for 1-3 more inches Thursday.

The storm headed for the Philadelphia area is called a derecho, or a straight-line windstorm that is a product of a line of severe thunderstorms. Winds could be up to 75 mph, possibly spawning tornadoes. The 2012 AT&T National at Congressional in Bethesda, Md., was hit by a derecho, causing the tournament to ban spectators Saturday as officials cleaned up the course.

The good news? Ardmore, Pa., should be spared for the rest of the week, with only a 10 percent chance of rain Friday and Saturday and 20 percent chance Sunday.

Temperatures each day will vary from the high 70s to the low 80s, with winds up to 15 mph.

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