2014 U.S. Open: Top 10 Storylines at Pinehurst

Richard LeivenbergContributor IIIJune 8, 2014

2014 U.S. Open: Top 10 Storylines at Pinehurst

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    Last year's winner Justin Rose will look to repeat.
    Last year's winner Justin Rose will look to repeat.USA TODAY Sports

    The main storyline for the U.S. Open usually revolves around the course and how rough and tough it is.

    How tight will the fairways be? How high will the rough be?  How slick can they make the greens?

    This year’s event returns to Pinehurst 2 which has been revamped without the normal rough that characterizes a U.S. Open course.

    This is where Payne Stewart beat a young Phil Mickelson in 1999, setting off a chain of unforeseen events that have become golfing lore.

    Not the least of those was Mickelson’s personal saga to complete the career Grand Slam by winning a U.S. Open title.  That is something still to be accomplished.

    The LPGA’s own Open event, June 19-22, follows the men's tourney, June 12-15, for the first time at the same course in the history of the sport.  A bunch of newbies are looking to make a name for themselves and a handful of vets are still in search of their first major title.

    Meanwhile, will anyone tune in with Tiger Woods on the sidelines?

    No matter what we expect, the unexpected will surely occur.  

    Herein are the top 10 storylines that will surely provide this year’s Open with its own history and drama.

1. There Will Be a Surprise Name at the Top of the Leaderboard

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    Can you name him?  He led the 2005 U.S. Open.
    Can you name him? He led the 2005 U.S. Open.GERRY BROOME/Associated Press

    In 2012 it was Michael Thompson with a two-stroke lead at four under par.

    In 2005, Olin Browne leapt to the fore with perennial wanna-be Rocco Mediate as both were tied at three under at this year’s host course, Pinehurst 2. Browne finished at 10 over, while first-time winner Michael Campbell took the title.

    Way back in 1990, the board looked like a Honda Classic with Tim Simpson, Scott Simpson and Jeff Sluman leading after the first day. 

    At Oakland Hills, T.C. Chen of China led on the first day of the 1985. Chen actually tied the U.S. Open record for lowest score after 54 holes and looked like he would go wire-to-wire only to fold up on the final round and be surpassed by eventual winner Andy North.

    Historically, a surprise player is bound to lead the field after the first day of the Open, and in a year in which we have had a revolving door of new winners, there is a good chance the trend will continue.

    Billy Horschel, anyone?

2. Pinehurst 2 Will Be Rough Even Without the Rough

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    Pine needles replace high rough at Pinehurst 2.
    Pine needles replace high rough at Pinehurst 2.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Don’t expect the normal full-grown rough that normally torments the pros at a U.S Open this time around at Pinehurst 2.

    Instead, the North Carolina course is beset by sand, natural hardpan, wire grass and pine straw. Nature not nurture will be the bane of players’ existence this year.

    “There’s never been anything like it, I don’t think, in U.S. Open memory that really has no rough,” said 1973 U.S. Open winner-turned-broadcaster Johnny Miller of the New York Post. “Basically, there’s fairway and then there’s the hardened fairway bunkers with the wire grass.” 

    Once they get beyond the fairways, the crowned greens will wreak havoc. Even though today’s golfers are longer off the tee, they will still have to place the ball perfectly on the greens, lest it rolls off to add inevitable strokes.

    Though, this year, both championships (men and women) follow each other, that shouldn’t have any real effect on the course. However, it will be the cause of some conversation as the first time for back-to-back Opens on the same course.

    Designed by Donald Ross, the course opened in 2014 and has been the site of more single golf championships than any course in America. It will grow from 7,214 yards to as much as 7,562 depending upon the daily setup.

    No matter what the size, it will present a completely different challenge to U.S. Open tracks before it.

3. Will TV Ratings Fall Again Without Tiger Woods in the Field

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    The 2002 U.S. Open with Tiger Woods drew over 10 million viewers.
    The 2002 U.S. Open with Tiger Woods drew over 10 million viewers.Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    The Masters TV ratings fell from 3.5 million viewers in 2013 to 2.2 million this year, per John Stege of Golf Digest (via Emily Kay of SB Nation). Boy does golf miss Tiger Woods.

    Without Tiger in the field, the Players Championship had its worst viewership in 15 years, per Paulsen of Sports Media Watch (via Josh Sens of Golf.com).  

    Woods will sit out the U.S. Open while he continues to recover from back surgery.  In the meantime, golf will struggle to find viewers.

    Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and even young gun Jordan Spieth do not have the combined firepower or dramatic flair to drive audiences to the screen.  That doesn’t bode so well for golf.

    The best storyline may be Mickelson’s continued quest for his first U.S. Open title. Should he actually be in the running, it will undoubtedly draw viewers. 

    The 2013 U.S. Open final round (M) ranked 44th among top-ranked sporting events watched on TV, per Sports Media Watch.  In 2012, it was 39th.

    In the years 2000, 2002 and 2008, when Tiger won the U.S. Open, ratings skyrocketed with more than 10 million viewers in 2002, per Bill Gorman of TV by the Numbers.

    Maybe if McIlroy gets back with Caroline Wozniacki, folks will tune in.

4. First Winners with a Pedigree

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    Can Matt Kuchar finally win a major?
    Can Matt Kuchar finally win a major?USA TODAY Sports

    Last year’s first-time winner, Justin Rose, might easily be followed by another well-deserving player this year. 

    Among the most prominent pros to have never won a major:

     

    Matt Kuchar

    Currently ranked third on the FedEx Cup list and fifth in the world, Kuchar is probably the best player on the tour to have not won a major title. He is seemingly always near the top of the leaderboard, finishing in a tie for ninth in the 2012 U.S. Open and tied for third in the 2012 Masters.

    With one win and nine top-10 finishes so far this year, he has to be among the favorites to break his unenviable losing streak.

     

    Sergio Garcia 

    At only 34 years old, Garcia remains in his prime as the current eighth-ranked player in the world.

    While he hasn’t won this year, he has five top-10 finishes in seven events and seems to have cured his historical (hysterical?) ills on the putting surface. Once ranked 144th, he now ranks 41st in strokes gained-putting.

    He is also eighth in greens hit in regulation, fifth in all-around ranking and first in scoring average. 

    Garcia has the experience to match his improved skills, but we will see if he can manage his flighty attitude.

     

    Dustin Johnson 

    In 2010, Johnson came extremely close to winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.  He actually held a three-shot lead going into Sunday only to blow up and drop an 82 on the seaside course.

    He has been in the final group in a major three times2011 Open Championship, 2010 U.S. Open and the 2010 PGA Championship.

    Johnson began 2014 with a win and three other top-10 finishes but has since had difficulty after missing the Masters cut.

    As usual, he is ranked second in driving distance, but his 128th spot in driving accuracy signals a problem that could hurt him on the U.S. Open track. 

    There is no question he has the athletic skill and talent to win at Pinehurst.

     

    Jason Day 

    The 26-year-old Aussie is a big-game player as witnessed by his stellar play in major tournaments.  In 2011, he tied for second in the Masters and placed second in the U.S. Open. Last year, he tied for second in the U.S. Open and eighth in the PGA Championship.

    A long-ball hitter with a deft touch around the greens, Day won the WGC-Accenture Match Play event earlier this season and is now ranked seventh in the world.

    He drives the ball consistently over 300 yards while hitting over 60 percent of his fairwaystwo stats that should work in his favor at Pinehurst.

5. A NexGen Player Who Could Win

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    Will Jordan Spieth win his first major at Pinehurst?
    Will Jordan Spieth win his first major at Pinehurst?Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Like the players in the previous slide, these young guns haven’t won a major yet, but they have been the main storylines of the year.

    There is little reason to doubt their ability to win their first major at Pinehurst.

     

    Jordan Spieth 

    Everyone’s favorite young player, Spieth continues to play consistently well.  So much so, the 20-year-old is ranked 10th in the world and fifth in FedEx Cup points.

    While he hasn’t yet won this year, he did tie for second in the Masters and has 13 top-25 finishes in 17 events.

    Spieth has been compared to Woods, Mickelson and his contemporary, McIlroy and, now, has the chance to live up to the billing by winning at Pinehurst. 

     

    Hideki Matsuyama 

    The youngster from Japan has six wins worldwide and just played perfect tee-to-green golf to take his first PGA tour win at the Memorial last week.

    He is playing some of the best golf on the tour and appears to be improving with every stroke of the club on American soil.

    Ranked in the top 20 in scrambling (and first in scrambling from within 30 yards), Matsuyama will employ his skills to make a run at his first major title at Pinehurst.

     

    Patrick Reed 

    Can Reed put his money where his mouth is and actually pull out a win at the U.S. Open?

    After winning at Doral earlier this year, the three-time winner put himself in a class with Woods and Mickelson and said he was among the "top five players in the world."  

    OK, so he got a little carried away. While he won again in March at the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship, he has since dropped off the face of the leaderboard, missing the cut three times in his last five events and finishing 48 and 52 in the other two.

    Let’s see which Reed shows up at Pinehurst.

     

    Chris Kirk 

    Stuck under the radar, Kirk, who is currently ranked sixth in the FedEx Cup race, has not missed a cut all year, has won once and has finished in the top 10 three times.

    The 29-year-old Georgia native is not ranked in the top 10 in any major stat category, doesn’t drive the ball particularly far or straight and is just OK on the greens.

    But he has steadily moved up the ranks and finished in the top 25 in four of his last six events.

    If momentum is important to winning, Kirk may be able to sneak in again as a top-flight finisher.

6. FedEx Cup Leader Jimmy Walker Could add a Major Title

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The stats say it all: After 187 starts without a win, Jimmy Walker has already won three times this year and is ranked first in FedEx Cup points.

    And he is not subsiding, posting seven top-10 finishes in 18 events so far this year.

    Walker remains in the top 10 in driving distance. Although he has a tendency to miss the fairway, he still ranks 25th in hitting greens in regulation and more importantly is fourth in strokes gained-putting.

    As a rank-and-file player for so long, Walker now has the chance to really make a name for himself by winning a major.

7. Justin Rose Shoots for a Repeat Win

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Rose has the opportunity to become the first player to win consecutive Opens since Curtis Strange won in 1988 and 1989.

    Last year, he beat the field at Merion and became the first Englishman to win the event since Tony Jacklin in 1970.

    It was also Rose’s first major title, something that was long overdue for one of golf’s elite players.

    Although 2014 hasn’t been a standout year for Rose, he has finished in the top 10 five times in 11 events, including a tie for fourth at the recent Players Championship.

    Rose possesses the smarts and the consistent tee-to-green game that wins at a U.S. Open course, and it would be no surprise if he repeats his 2013 feat.

8. Will Rory McIlroy Continue His Stellar Play and Win Third Major?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    McIlroy made headlines when he broke off his engagement with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.  Then he made mincemeat out of his competition with a stunning come-from-behind victory at the BMW PGA Championship.

    It looked like he would continue to win when he shot an opening-round 63 at Muirfield.  While the fairy tale did not continue as he quickly fell back into the pack, McIlroy has regained his winning stroke and should be considered one of the top players to win at Pinehurst.

    Let’s put it this way: In nine PGA events this season, he has finished in the top 25 nine times. Six of those have been top-10 finishes. He is eighth in driving distance, first in birdie average, third in scoring average and sixth all-around on the PGA tour.

    He is also hungry to regain the world’s top ranking; he now ranks sixth.

    After a very bouncy last couple of seasons, McIlroy could take his rightful place among golf’s elite by winning at Pinehurst, something that would make the type of headlines he would prefer.

9. Can Adam Scott Play up to his No. 1 World Ranking?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Were it not for three bogeys and a double on the back nine of last week’s Memorial, Scott would be sitting on his second win of the season and a ton of momentum going into Pinehurst.

    Instead, the top-ranked player in the world let one slip through the cracks.

    In order to retain his top billing, Scott will have to be more cutthroat and focused.  There would be no time like the U.S. Open for him to put his strong game together with a tougher attitude.

    While Scott fell into first when Tiger was waylaid due to back surgery, he surely has earned the accolade. He has won three times in the last year, including the 2013 Masters title which was his first major win. He is first in the PGA in all-around ranking and in the top five in a bunch of other statistical categories. 

    When it comes to top prospects to win at Pinehurst, the 33-year-old Scott is sandwiched between the sentimental favorite, Mickelson, and the revitalized star, McIlroy.

    Will he come to Pinehurst and show players, fans and the golf world who the real No. 1 in the world is?

10. Will Phil Mickelson Finally Win the U.S. Open

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Could there really be a better storyline than Phil Mickelson, after six runner-up finishes, attempting to finally win his first U.S. Open at Pinehurst where this whole runner-up thing started?

    It was at this very course, in 1999, that he finished second to Payne Stewart.  Stewart died in a plane crash later that year and now a statue of the three-time majors winner sits in front of Pinehurst.  

    Talk about overcoming demons…and tears. 

    He could have won six, and he hasn't won one," Ernie Els said. "I believe he's going to win one. He's still young enough. His game is still good enough."  

    Believe it or not, Ripley, Mickelson almost won at Merion last year. 

    The great thing about him is that, even at 43, he firmly believes he will win the U.S.Open and complete the career grand slam.

    As he said to writer Rick Reilly, "I'm going to win a bunch of tournaments. I'm going to win at least one US Open, maybe two." 

    And so the saga continues.

    Could there be any other greater reason to tune in to this year’s Open?  Maybe those dying TV ratings will actually be revived.

     

    Player statistics courtesy of http://www.pgatour.com/