5 key questions for Friday at the U.S. Open

Michael Thompson of the United States waves to the gallery after a birdie putt on the 18th green during the first round of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club on June 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

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SAN FRANCISCO - There are plenty of storylines to watch on Friday at the U.S. Open, so we pinpointed five that will be prevalent as the cut is made at Olympic Club.

Here is some "friendly" banter from our staff on the scene:

• • •

1. Does Michael Thompson have any chance?

JEFF RUDE: Well, he did shoot 66. So, yes, he has a chance. Olympic produces underdog winners.

JEFF BABINEAU: Sure. He’s very comfortable on this golf course, and he's a nice all-around player. His biggest challenge this week might be making sure not to get hit by a cable car on Lombard Street.

RYAN LAVNER: A chance? Yes. A good chance? No. He needed 22 putts in Round 1. That feat isn’t likely to be repeated. It’s probably his last lead of the week.

NICK MASUDA: I hate to say this, guys, but talk to me at the end of Friday. I know that U.S. Opens are won by the underdog, but Thompson will be playing in the afternoon on Friday, and if guys like Luke Donald are 9 over late in the day, how do you think Thompson will handle that pressure?

JAMES ACHENBACH: No. No.

SEAN MARTIN: His go-to ball-flight is a fade, which is perfect for Olympic. He's an unbelievable putter, which also helps. He's kind of in the Lee Janzen mold of a guy who thrives in harder golf courses. With that said, the odds are against him. But it wouldn't be a complete surprise.

ALEX MICELI: Lee Janzen? I don’t know if he is in the Lee Janzen mode, but I do know he played three shots better than the rest of the field. I also know he can roll the rock, which last time I looked is a big part of winning U.S. Opens. So in a nutshell, he has a better chance than defending champion Rory McIlroy or World No. 1 Luke Donald.

JIM McCABE: To win? No. Then again, I picked Phil Mickelson.

• • •

2. Is this Tiger's U.S. Open to lose?

JEFF RUDE: Yes. He shot 69 and is three shots back, but it seems like he's three shots ahead.

JEFF BABINEAU: Rudy, Rudy, Rudy. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we still don’t TRULY know what to expect day-to-day from this guy. He looked terrific on Thursday, very comfortable. It seems as if the Mechanical Man has gone away. But it’s Thursday. We know that he’s ABLE to do this for four days, but WILL he do it for four days? That's the great unknown. He’s the favorite, but this place is hard, so it’s different than jumping out front at, say, Augusta.

RYAN LAVNER: It’s premature to declare that this tournament is already over. Too many times in the past few years Tiger has followed a good round with a bad one. But if you watched the way TW played Thursday - surgically, confidently - then, yeah, this topic may need to be revisited come Friday evening.

NICK MASUDA: I picked him to win - I know, really going out on a limb there - and I stand behind my pick. I still believe this has the potential to be a runaway, and nothing I saw on Thursday made me think otherwise.

JAMES ACHENBACH: Not yet. He must stay in contention.

SEAN MARTIN: No. Saturday is too early to start handing out trophies. See Phil Mickelson, 2012 Masters. Let's not start doing it Thursday.

ALEX MICELI: Tiger Woods hit the ball as well as anyone on the golf course Thursday and is in a five-way tie for second, three shots off the lead of Michael Thompson. I really believe that Woods needs to putt better or he will be on the outside looking in on Sunday.

JIM McCABE: It would be, if he were the vintage Tiger. He's not. I'd suggest he probably won the pole position today, but he's got to handle a firmer, faster and more challenging Olympic Club late Friday.

• • •

3. Who could challenge Tiger on the weekend?

JEFF RUDE: Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Nick Watney and Jim Furyk, to name four from the Thursday afternoon leaderboard.

JEFF BABINEAU: Mostly Tiger. And then a slew of hungry players on his heels. I think this might be the major where Rickie Fowler gets his feet wet and contends. Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk are players worth watching, too.

RYAN LAVNER: Could be any number of guys - Kuchar, Watney, Furyk, Byrd, Rose. What do they all have in common? Control, control, control.

NICK MASUDA: Matt Kuchar is looking really solid playing in the p.m. on Thursday and showed some mettle by winning the Players Championship, even playing with the human rain delay. I could see the two in a Sunday pairing.

JAMES ACHENBACH: Anyone who shot 73 or better is within four strokes of Tiger and could easily beat him.

SEAN MARTIN: I like Kuchar. It would be a great story, coming off his biggest career victory and returning to a site of his amateur glory.

ALEX MICELI: It’s a little premature to talk about the weekend, but if you're asking whom I like after 18 holes, then it’s got to be Justin Rose and Jim Furyk. Both play hard golf courses very well and have won on difficult tracks. In reality, it seems that Rose doesn’t pay attention unless it's Muirfield Village or Aronimink.

JIM McCABE: How about three guys who equaled Woods' 69, but in tougher afternoon conditions: Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Nick Watney. Love the fact that grinders like Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk posted 70s, and hold on a minute: Go back to McDowell. What about the way he outplayed Tiger in Round 4 to win the U.S. Open at Pebble two years ago makes you think he'll disappear? He never has missed a cut in six U.S. Open starts, and he has been T-18, first and T-14 the last three years.

• • •

4. Of the surprise contenders, who is most likely to stay on the leaderboard?

JEFF RUDE: Ryo Ishikawa. He's loaded with talent if not experience.

JEFF BABINEAU: I wouldn’t be surprised if Thompson finishes in the top 5 here.

RYAN LAVNER: Scroll a little further down on the leaderboard and there is Branden Grace, who shot 71. A three-time winner in Europe this year, he’s been playing as well as anyone in the world over the past six weeks.

NICK MASUDA: I think Beau Hossler has a chance. The kid has some game and can play without much fanfare because he is opposite the Tiger-Phil-Bubba grouping. He gets to just play, and that could be dangerous.

JAMES ACHENBACH: Ian Poulter. In my mind, he's a surprise contender.

SEAN MARTIN: I like Branden Grace at 71. Not sure if a three-time winner on the European Tour this year can be called a "surprise," but he could sneak up on a lot of American fans. John Peterson also shot 71 and has a knack for playing difficult courses well.

ALEX MICELI: Sean, you’re becoming a little Europhobic. Grace is no surprise; he’s won three times on the European Tour this year. I think Thompson is the biggest surprise who will be on the leaderboard at the end.

JIM McCABE: Michael Thompson is likely to hang around, perhaps top 10, but the name that intrigues me is Ian Poulter. Has been very quiet for a long while now, but give him credit – he loves the big stage, and no one has more faith in himself.

• • •

5. Which stars will miss the cut on Friday?

JEFF RUDE: World No. 1 Luke Donald. Masters champion Bubba Watson. Recent Colonial champion Zach Johnson. Not Phil Mickelson, though, He'll bounce back from 76.

JEFF BABINEAU: More folks than usual, now that the U.S. Golf Association very quietly did away with its 10-shot rule. We’ll lose Luke Donald, which is surprising, and Bubba Watson, which is not. I think Rory McIlroy will go out early and shoot a number that keeps him around for the weekend.

RYAN LAVNER: Rory and Westy were bullied today by Olympic, but they’ll have the benefit of an early tee time Friday. They should bounce back. Who won’t? Donald, Bubba, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson.

NICK MASUDA: Donald and Bubba are toast (they'd have to go really low, and nothing we saw Thursday indicates they can do that). I think Rory is gone too, as is Phil. The USGA just took one collective big sigh . . .

JAMES ACHENBACH: Ryo Ishikawa shot a 71 on Thursday. I don't expect him to repeat that.

SEAN MARTIN: With a cut that could fall at 8 over, it's hard to declare any player dead, but I think fans should get here tomorrow if they want to see Bubba Watson or Luke Donald. It doesn't look like they'll be here for the weekend.

ALEX MICELI: Agreed, Watson looked like a dead man walking. Maybe he should’ve taken the U.S. Open off and played the Players instead. In regards to Donald, he is a gutty competitor and will find a way to play on the weekend.

JIM McCABE: Had the cut been made Thursday, it would have fallen at 4 over. Give it a bit of a bump; let's say 6 over makes it. That means Phil Mickelson has to shoot 69, Rory McIroy and Zach Johnson 68 or better, Bubba Watson 67, Luke Donald 66. The guess is, Mickelson might just do it, but not so the others. Oh, and Louis Oosthuizen will join them on the bus out of town.

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