The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst promises to present one of the toughest major challenges in recent history. The last time the event was held at the North Carolina course in 2005, Michael Campbell prevailed through difficult conditions and a late charge from Tiger Woods to win at even par.
With no clear-cut favorites in the field for the 2014 rendition, the year's second major is truly anyone's game. Unlike courses such as Augusta National Golf Club or Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2 does not possess any truly spectacular views. However, the relatively quiet flat course allows for golf in its purest form, and the winner will need to exhibit four days of consistent shotmaking and intelligence to survive.
Given the nature of the course, it's difficult to pinpoint any names certain to be in contention on Sunday. However, looking at recent track records, there are a few golfers who stand out as potential winners, either as a favorite or dark-horse.
The tournament's sentimental favorite is also one of the top contenders to watch, despite his rough season. Mickelson's record six runner-up U.S. Open finishes are the dominant storyline heading into the tournament, as the golf world is wondering whether or not Lefty can finally break through.
Though Mickelson has yet to finish in the top 10 in any of his 14 tour starts this year, he is coming off of a season-best 11th-place finish at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Mickelson believes that the tournament, played at TPC Southwind, aided his preparation for Pinehurst:
Mickelson did shoot three rounds in the 60s at Southwind, the first time he has done so all year. At 43 years old, Mickelson is running out of time to capture that elusive first U.S. Open title. Playing at a course where he finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999, Mickelson certainly factors in as an early favorite.
Scott has only won one major in his career, but he has come close numerous other times. However, the U.S. Open is the one grand slam the Aussie golfer has had trouble conquering:
The 33-year-old enters the tournament with plenty of momentum, though. Scott finished fourth in the Memorial Tournament and won the Crowne Plaza Invitational in his penultimate start before the U.S. Open. Indeed, though he has made just nine PGA starts in 2014, he has accrued five top-10 finishes.
Currently the world's top-ranked player, there is little doubt that Scott should remain on the short list of favorites in spite of his history. His signature long putter should keep him among the putting leaders for the week, potentially catalyzing his highest finish at the event.
The third-ranked player in the world has yet to break through with his first major championship, but the 35-year-old Kuchar appears to be closing in. With nine top-10 finishes in 15 PGA events thus far in 2014, including a win at the RBC Heritage and a third-place finish at the Masters, Kuchar has arguably been the tour's most consistent player this season.
Though not a physically gifted player like Mickelson or Rory McIlroy, Kuchar is among the most cerebral players on tour. On a course that requires intelligence more than raw power, Kuchar could hold a distinct advantage over most of the competition:
Kuchar is clearly in a rhythm with his game, and he is poised to capture multiple titles this year. Whether or not one of those wins comes at a major championship is uncertain, but he seems likely to find himself near the top of the leaderboard this weekend.
The 2010 champion has had a solid season, with five top-10 finishes in 10 PGA starts. Coming off of a missed cut at the Masters, McDowell is flying under the radar for many. However, there is ample reason to believe he could contend.
For one, McDowell has experienced plenty of major championship success before. He finished second at this event in 2012, and also has top-10 finishes at the Open Championship and PGA Championship. The 34-year-old veteran believes that putting will be the key on a course that offers few birdie opportunities:
McDowell is 27th on tour this year with 28.56 putts per round, per PGATour.com. That's a respectable number, though one inflated in recent weeks. Still, McDowell has the track record and skill set to contend at Pinehurst, making him one of the more dangerous dark horses in the field.