With Tiger Woods officially pulling out of the 2014 U.S. Open on Wednesday, the chatter now turns to who might be favored at Pinehurst No. 2.
The U.S. Open always provides the stories around qualifiers and unknown contenders but usually falls back to the world’s best and how they work their way around courses where shooting par is an achievement.
Here is a look at five players to watch in the June 12-15 U.S. Open, now that Woods is out of the picture:
• • •
Always the groomsman, never the groom? Such is life for Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open. Mickelson has a head-scratching six runner-up finishes at America’s national championship, including in 2013 at Merion. His U.S. Open heartache began in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2, when he lost by one stroke to the late Payne Stewart. Mickelson needs the U.S. Open title to complete the career Grand Slam, and he showed last year that he still has enough game to win major titles, capturing the Open Championship in a convincing Sunday round.
“It would mean a lot to me,” Mickelson said Wednesday at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. “I would look at myself – I would look at my career, which is all I care about – in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one.”
Mickelson will turn 44 on June 16, so it’d be a great birthday gift to himself if he should finally break through. This week at Memorial will be a big test for Mickelson, as he has yet to record a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season – having missed three cuts and earning less than $650,000. Mickelson spent his off weeks since the Players Championship working on his short game, knowing that it will be key to navigate around Pinehurst.
“My short game right now, which has not been great this year, is – after spending a few days, it feels good,” he said. “So I’m curious to see how it goes this week.”
• • •
Anyone who questioned whether his sudden breakup with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki would affect his game got an immediate answer with his comeback victory at the BMW PGA Championship on Sunday.
But the BMW simply acted as the culmination of play that has been 180 degrees from 2013, when he started the year with new equipment and new pressures of being a top-ranked player.
McIlroy has played eight PGA Tour events this season, posting six top-10 finishes, including a loss in a playoff at the Honda Classic to Russell Henley. He also has three top-10 finishes on the European Tour, including a tie for second in Abu Dhabi.
The World No. 6 has proved that he can win a U.S. Open, throttling the field at Congressional by eight shots in 2011, although he has only one other top 10 in his U.S. Open career, a tie for 10th in 2009.
• • •
How could the World No. 1 not make this list? Especially a World No. 1 coming off a come-from-behind, sudden-death playoff victory over the defending PGA Championship winner, Jason Dufner?
The key for Scott winning always has been his streaky long putter, as the talented Australian still owns only one major title, the 2013 Masters.
But Scott has been working on a new way of reading slope in the greens in recent weeks, with the public getting its first look at the AimPoint Express Read technique last week at Colonial. Although the read might resemble a Vulcan salute, it has allowed Scott to feel more comfortable over his putts, and that could spell bad news for the rest of the world.
Scott has struggled in the U.S. Open, missing six cuts in 12 appearances, with his best finish a tie for 15th at The Olympic Club in 2012.
• • •
Despite a rough last three rounds on Tour – he missed only his second cut of the season last week and shot 2-over 74 in Round 1 at the Memorial on Thursday – Kuchar has what it takes to win at Pinehurst: the ability to scramble around the greens.
The World No. 4 is fourth on the PGA Tour in scrambling at 65.37 percent, while also ranking 14th in strokes-gained putting at .491. Although Pinehurst will present tough targets with its convex greens, Kuchar ranks sixth in scrambling from inside 30 yards, which could be key to contending.
After missing four of his first five cuts in the U.S. Open, Kuchar has been trending upward in the national championship. In 2010 at Pebble Beach, he fired a final-round 68 to tie for sixth, the best U.S. Open finish of his career. He followed that with a T-14 (2011), T-27 (2012) and T-28 (2013).
• • •
McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach, has the patience and attitude to win again. There are some similarities between Pinehurst and Pebble Beach, as bombers can work their way around the course, but it still takes adept second shots and work around the greens to succeed.
“Pinehurst is an iron-shot golf course, a second-shot golf course,” McDowell said in a recent interview with Reuters. “It’s all about iron shots, and I love that you get an opportunity to go at it.”
McDowell nearly had a second U.S. Open title, in 2012 at Olympic, but faltered over his final few holes in tying for second. Outside of his missed cut at Merion in 2013, McDowell hasn’t finished outside the top 20 in the past five U.S. Opens, including T-14 in 2011 and T-18 in 2009.