When the 2014 U.S. Open kicks off on Thursday at Pinehurst, it will have a distinctly different feel from what we expected when the year started. Transition has been the name of the game on the PGA Tour this season, though some familiar faces are still making waves.
For instance, even though 20-year-old Jordan Spieth was the talk of the Masters in April, it was 35-year-old veteran Bubba Watson who walked away with the green jacket.
Golf's second major of the year isn't likely to play out the same way as the Masters, simply because the U.S. Open is designed to humble and, at times, humiliate the best players in the world. The last time this event was played at Pinehurst was in 2005, and Michael Campbell won at even par.
Rory McIlroy's win in 2011 was the last time a player earned the U.S. Open trophy with a score under par.
Combine the usual Open difficulty with Pinehurst's multimillion dollar renovation designed to enhance the strategy and accuracy required to win, and you suddenly have a wide-open event that's difficult to forecast.
We will do our best to figure out which players have the best game to succeed at Pinehurst in this year's U.S. Open.
Everything McIlroy has done so far this season seems to be building toward a major win. The 25-year-old's biggest problem has been avoiding one bad round that sinks his chances. Just look at his last four PGA Tour events, excluding his worst rounds:
|Wells Fargo Championship||69-X-65-70|
|The Players Championship||70-X-69-66|
You will notice that all of McIlroy's worst scores have come in the second round. Whatever the reason, it's something that needs to be figured out in a hurry.
For the record, McIlroy's second-round totals in those four events are 77, 76, 74 and 78. He's not just missing one shot here or there; it's a full-on collapse when things start going wrong.
McIlroy also detailed his plan for success at Pinehurst in an interview with David Dusek of Golfweek.com, saying that playing things more conservatively is the best way to go:
Middle of the green, middle of the green, middle of the green. If you short-side yourself, you bring a really large number into play. I'm going to adopt a really conservative game plan next week. I think if your iron game is in really good shape, then you can hit the middle of those greens. Even if it's a 30- or 40-foot birdie putt every time, you're going to do really well.
Despite the one inconsistent round that seems to happen every tournament, McIlroy's overall performance has been consistent. He's made nine cuts in nine PGA events this year, including six top-10 finishes.
Despite having two Masters wins under his belt, Watson seems to be the guy who sneaks up on you in majors. He's not flashy or demonstrative like the best players usually are, but there's no real flaw in his game right now.
Pinehurst is the kind of course Watson should thrive on. In a teleconference previewing the U.S. Open, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said the following regarding Watson's chances of winning the calendar Grand Slam, per Alex Myers of Golf Digest: "He has a chance to go there with his height and his ability to hit short shots into these greens and to do things that nobody has ever seen before."
Johnny Miller was also quoted as saying that Watson has a great shot because "a long hitter could win the Open with the way the setup is."
If you are looking for a golfer whose game best lines up with the way Pinehurst is sure to play, it's Watson. He's long off the tee, and he owns the best driving distance on tour this year and the highest percentage of putts made from 15 to 25 feet, per PGATour.com.
Twenty-year-old Jordan Spieth is earning a reputation as the future of American golf thanks to his charisma and his performance on the course.
The young Texan finished second at the Masters, which was his coming-out party, and had another top-five finish at The Players Championship in May.
The native Texan has struggled to close on Sundays, playing his final 11 holes at the Masters in 3 over and shooting a final-round 74 to finish tied for fourth at the Players Championship.
He's not a long driver (102nd on the PGA Tour at 288.5 yards) or accurate (58.4 percent of fairways hit), resulting in a greens-in-regulation percentage of 65.1 percent, 97th on tour.
The Sunday stat is more concerning than anything else, as we have seen what happens to players who struggle closing things out. Phil Mickelson went years without being able to end a tournament on a high note.
Don't worry about Spieth's driving length or accuracy, since it didn't seem to be a big problem at Augusta. He's just a young man starting to come into his own, so what better stage to shine on than the U.S. Open?
Sunday will be the most telling indication of how far Spieth's game has come.
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