The 2014 U.S. Open begins Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, as many of the globe's best golfers seek to etch their names in immortal lore at the season's second major championship.
Justin Rose is the defending champion, but pulling off two straight wins at this tournament has been most rare. Curtis Strange was the last to accomplish the feat in 1988 and 1989. OddsShark.com lists Rose as a generous 28-1 favorite, but the golfer to beat in oddsmakers' eyes is Rory McIlroy at 8-1.
Previous U.S. Opens contested at Pinehurst No. 2 saw Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell win with scores of one under and level par respectively in 1999 and 2005.
It's difficult to figure out just how the scoring will be, but it figures to be as tough as U.S. Opens often are. Pars will be the premium, while those who can minimize bogeys and dreaded others best will have a shot on the weekend.
Pinehurst underwent quite the overhaul in ridding itself of thick rough, widening its fairways and lengthening to a monster of a par 70 course at 7,562 yards. Tight lies in the pristine turf will make scrambling rather difficult around the greens, as players will be forced to miss in the proper spots to have any shot at getting up and down.
The BBC's Stephen Watson captured what the wispy rough looks like in its original form:
Pinehurst's been restored to its natural look - no manufactured brutal rough like normal US Open. Still looks nasty! pic.twitter.com/KtdaU7XNy3— Stephen Watson (@winkerwatson1) June 8, 2014
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw led the redesigning efforts, and Coore shared his thoughts on how the lack of rough will impact the event.
"This is going to be the first U.S. Open played without a maintained rough," said Coore, per GolfChannel.com's Randall Mell. "Yes, the fairways will be bigger, but the uncertainty of shots that are going to be played from the natural rough, we think that is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the week."
With a preview of what to expect established, let's take a look at the odds-on favorites, followed by more detailed analysis on those expected to contend most prominently for the trophy.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise indicated.
When: Thursday, June 12 through Sunday, June 15
Where: Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina
Tee Times: Visit USOpen.com for complete listings of the first two rounds.
FedEx Cup Points: 600
Purse: $8,000,000; Winner’s Share: $1,440,000
Rory McIlroy (8-1)
The combination of a long course and little rough plays into McIlroy's hands in a big way. The Northern Irish sensation can smash it off the tee and hit majestic, towering iron shots that stop quickly on the tricky Pinehurst greens.
What McIlroy's success or lack thereof will come down to is his scrambling, a statistic he ranks 172nd in on the PGA Tour this season. Though he does rank first in birdies or better conversion percentage, McIlroy has failed to post even more spectacular scores due to an inability to get up and down around the greens.
Chipping off of tight lies almost recalls links golf, shots with which McIlroy is familiar playing before his meteoric rise on the international stage.
Starting off well hasn't been a problem for McIlroy in his career, but stringing together four great rounds has been a bit of a challenge at times. This year, the second round is what's hurt him. Golf Channel's Justin Ray seemed prophetic in forecasting McIlroy's 78 at the Memorial to follow his opening 63:
Entering today, over his last 4 @PGATOUR starts, Rory McIlroy is a combined +17 in the 2nd round. He's 37-under the rest of the week.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) May 31, 2014
Despite that disastrous round, though, McIlroy ground his way back to a tie for 15th on the weekend at Muirfield Village in his last start. He's often made cuts on the number and still found a way to finish in the top 10, showing serious grit that was absent in the past.
McIlroy ran away with an eight-stroke victory at the 2011 U.S. Open under favorable, wet conditions. If it rains at Pinehurst, his length will give him a big advantage there again. Regardless of what Mother Nature does, as long as McIlroy's putter behaves, he should be in the hunt to win his third major come Sunday.
Adam Scott (11-1)
Talk about a great run up to the second major. Scott disappointed in defending his green jacket at the Masters, slipping to a tie for 14th and following it up with a tie for 38th at the Players Championship.
But the new world No. 1 bounced back in a big way, defeating fellow 2013 major champion Jason Dufner in a playoff to win the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.
Instead of suffering an excusable letdown, Scott put up his guard for the top spot in the world rankings by submitting a stellar tie for fourth at the Memorial Tournament. It appears the Aussie is feeling confident about the preparation he's put in to fulfill his potential as the planet's top-ranked golfer, per ABC.net.au:
It's been a lot of work the last couple of years to play this consistent, to bring my game to the level of where I really wanted in the big events, and to maintain it you've got to continue to have that drive. It's been a lot of hours at home constantly trying to improve and trying to be smart about it.
Putting has often prevented Scott from achieving even more between the ropes, yet he's improved a ton in that area, too, placing 15th on tour in strokes gained putting. What will help him even more at Pinehurst is his combination of power and precision off the tee, as he's third in total driving in 2013-14.
Scott could complete half of the career Grand Slam with a U.S. Open triumph. Pressure has never seemed to faze him due to his calm countenance on the course. Now the results are supporting that notion, and perhaps a second major in as many years is in store.
Phil Mickelson (14-1)
The first of Mickelson's six agonizing runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open came at Pinehurst No. 2 in a memorable duel with Payne Stewart, which saw Lefty lose by one stroke.
This is a far different course setup than it was then, yet Mickelson will have no choice but to focus on the positives from that experience. He did get valuable competitive rounds in as he prefers to do the week before a major, returning to the FedEx St. Jude Classic to match his season-best result with a tie for 11th.
Kyle Porter of CBS Sports noted how little success Mickelson and Tiger Woods—still not in action due to back surgery recovery—have had entering the U.S. Open:
Tiger Woods + Phil Mickelson still have zero top 10s combined as the US Open is one hole away. Wild.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) June 8, 2014
They are arguably the game's two biggest stars in terms of popularity and personal brand, with no offense to the younger McIlroy and Scott.
Mickelson is bound to have his best result, because he almost always manages to get himself into contention in what has become the most elusive tournament for him to tackle. Whether he can finish it off remains to be seen, but the gallery and fans watching worldwide will be pulling hard for Phil the Thrill if he's in it to win it in the final round.
Who is the best bet to win the 2014 U.S. Open?
Any of the three favorites would make excellent champions, all of them bolstering the game of golf's profile. McIlroy would fortify his star power, giving him three major titles already at the age of 25. Amid persistent to Woods, McIlroy would continue carving his own unique path.
Distancing himself atop the world rankings and backing up a previous major victory may launch Scott into a different stratosphere if he emerges as the winner. It would do little to mitigate the controversy regarding anchored putters and their impending 2016 ban. How Scott fares moving forward figures to go a long way in shaping the perception of the flat irons in the future.
Then, of course, the long-awaited breakthrough by Mickelson is a fantasy that has been close to becoming reality so many times. Is this finally Mickelson's year? Should it be, Mickelson would climb even higher among golf's all-time legends.