The 2014 U.S. Open will be the site of a unique golfing challenge at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, beginning on Thursday.
One of the big favorites figures to be new world No. 1 Adam Scott. However, the Aussie has never fared well at this tournament in 12 prior starts.
Below is a look at some of the game's biggest stars, with analysis as to why they're bound to fare well or fall far short of the top prize at Pinehurst.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise indicated.
Best: Rory McIlroy
The 2011 U.S. Open champion has found his form after a slumping 2013 campaign. McIlroy has posted consistently strong results this season thanks to a new resiliency he's discovered that has allowed him to rally back from lackluster rounds.
It took valiant efforts at the Masters and the Players Championship for McIlroy to work his way back into the top 10 after making the cut on the number. Then, he won the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship, rallying from seven strokes behind on the final day.
Course management has also been an area where McIlroy has exercised a bit more caution, and he's ready to showcase that at Pinehurst, per The Telegraph's James Corrigan:
I’m going to adopt a really conservative game plan. Middle of the green, middle of the green, middle of the green. 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. If you short-side yourself, you bring a really large number into play.
Still just 25 years of age, there are signs that McIlroy is continuing to evolve and apply his learning experiences to the course. It's translated well to the results he's had on the PGA Tour—six top-10 and top-25 finishes in all nine of his starts.
McIlroy can still boom the ball off the tee with the best of them, even with his less aggressive mindset. The distance he can generate will allow him to conquer the long Pinehurst layout. A lack of thick rough thanks to the course's redesign won't penalize him as much for wayward tee shots, either.
On putts greater than 25 feet, McIlroy ranks first on tour with an 11.83 percent conversion rate. Presuming he is as solid from tee to green as he has been this year, he should have a great chance at major No. 3 in the final round.
Worst: Matt Kuchar
Similar to Scott, Kuchar has had his fair share of struggles at this tournament, managing just one top-10 finish in 11 tries. But with how often Kuchar is in contention just about every time he tees it up these days, he's bound for a maiden major win at some point.
It just won't be this week. Kuchar is among the best scramblers in the game and has a great iron game. Those skills often translate well to a U.S. Open, but the biggest shortcoming for Kuchar is distance off the tee and overall.
Pinehurst's firm, deceptive greens will make it difficult for Kuchar to score well. The lack of rough isn't as much of a factor for him because Kuchar is going to be farther away than his competitors and will have trouble controlling his approach shots as a result. He ranks just 145th on tour in driving distance.
After playing six tournaments in a row, Kuchar withdrew from last week's FedEx St. Jude Classic. Hard to blame him, but he may be a bit too worn out to endorse as a legitimate contender in the U.S. Open.
Although Kuchar's major drought will continue, there's little doubt he will break through. Pinehurst is just a poor fit for his strengths. His game doesn't have many weaknesses, but the most glaring one in power will be exposed on this long course.
Best: Sergio Garcia
At Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005, Garcia finished in a tie for fifth, and he has been superb all season long. Formerly known as the prodigious El Niño, the Spanish star is now in the prime of his career, still seeking to notch a major victory.
Check out this statistic from Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee regarding Garcia's ball-striking prowess in his last appearance at this venue:
In the 2005 US Open just 4 players hit 45 greens or more for the week Nick Price 46 Sergio Garcia 47 Vijay Singh 49 Tiger Woods... 54— brandel chamblee (@chambleebrandel) June 2, 2014
What's often prevented Garcia from accomplishing more in his career is putting, but that's a part of his game he's made massive strides in over the past few years. He ranks 25th in total putting on tour, fifth in scrambling and a solid 28th in birdie or better conversion percentage.
If the knee injury that forced him to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship was a concern, Garcia didn't seem too worried when arriving at the site of this year's U.S. Open:
Just landed in Pinehurst! Hot weather. Looking forward to this week! Acabamos de aterrizar en Pinehurst. Hace calor. Con ganas de jugar!— Sergio Garcia (@TheSergioGarcia) June 9, 2014
Oh, and keep this in mind coming down the stretch Sunday in addition to Garcia's strong result here in the past: He boasts a No. 2 ranking in 2013-14 in both sand save percentage and final-round scoring average. Waste-style bunkers are the pitfalls around the slippery Pinehurst greens rather than lush rough, and Garcia's ability to close out tournaments has been encouraging to witness this year.
If he's within striking distance on the back nine in the last round, don't be surprised if Garcia finally gets the major monkey off his back and winds up with the trophy.
Worst: Patrick Reed
All of Reed's rhetoric about being a top-five player in the world rubbed some people the wrong way. The promising American is just 23 but already has three victories under his belt. Unfortunately, he may have set his sights too high too soon.
Reed ascended to 20th in the world rankings following his triumph at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Ever since that landmark win, he has failed to do anything of substance. In fairness, he and his wife announced the birth of their son on May 22, so that may have been a source of distraction.
Whatever impact that had doesn't minimize how Reed's stock is sinking at a steep rate. He has missed four of his last six cuts—including three in a row—and hasn't finished better than a tie for 48th at the RBC Heritage in that span. In spite of that, Reed still ranks No. 26 in the world ahead of his second major start.
Who is likeliest to win the 2014 U.S. Open?
The Masters proved to be too big of a stage for Reed to compete on. With his volatile temperament on the course, he doesn't have the requisite attitude to succeed in the U.S. Open's stern test of golf. That's not to say he won't contend in later years, but Reed needs to accumulate more experience before he can truly contend for his first major title.
With so much elite talent to choose from and so many individual golfer's games to consider, the best and worst list could go on ad nauseum. However, McIlroy and Garcia stand out as strong candidates to perform well, based on their season-long consistency, their excellence with the longer clubs and the feeling that they're both due for another marquee win.
Kuchar's countenance is ideal to thrive at what can be a frustrating Pinehurst No. 2, but he has other majors that suit him better. He will likely start to take heat if he indeed doesn't make the cut or has a poor result, yet it should only drive Kuchar to be better as the prime of his career progresses.
As for Reed, his best golf is ahead of him. If he can weather his current storm, calm down on the course and take the positives of being fortunate to compete in majors at such a young age, his path to stardom should still be intact.