Heading into the 2014 U.S. Open, Vegas has identified some front-runners at Pinehurst No. 2, but not any single player who will run away with the tournament.
Per Odds Shark, no golfer has better than 10-1 odds to win golf's second major of the year, but that doesn't speak ill to the level of talent atop the field.
Rather, consider it a testament to the depth of contenders at this U.S. Open. Henrik Stenson is the second-ranked player in the world, and Jordan Spieth is the rising star of the golf world, yet they both currently have 25-1 odds. That puts them tied for fifth with Matt Kuchar and 2013 U.S. Open champ Justin Rose.
Vegas is only giving four players better than 20-1 odds. Anyone could emerge with the victory at Pinehurst, but those are the favorites to watch.
Bubba Watson (18-1)
You'd think Watson's power off the tee should give him a nice edge at Pinehurst, giving him an easier approach to some unforgiving greens. Given their narrowness, the shorter and more precise a player can play following his opening drive, the easier his life will be.
But as Bob Harig writes on ESPN.com, Watson is talking about laying up at Pinehurst in deference to the course's difficulty, calling the greens "unfriendly" and referring to the surrounding waste area as "weeds."
It's a tough test of golf. For me personally it's going to be all about the tee shots. I'm going to try to lay farther back than normal. It's still iffy -- I don't know what they call it, rough, dirt, sand -- but you don't know what kind of lies you're going to get [off the fairway]. So I'm going to lay back and have a lot longer shots into the holes.
If that's the tactic Watson takes, this U.S. Open will feel even more like uncharted territory for him. The 2014 Masters champ has never played Pinehurst before, and leaning on his middle irons is not his forte.
Bubba Watson says twice in his presser Pinehurst No.2 will be like a chess match this week -- then notes he doesn't play chess. #USOpen— scott_fowler (@scott_fowler) June 10, 2014
Yes, aggressive drives could get him into more trouble with those unforgiving wastelands, but Watson instead intends to defer to the course and play outside his natural game. Even for one of the world's best, that does not sound promising for major competition.
Phil Mickelson (14-1)
At this point, rather than wonder whether Mickelson has been snake-bitten or charmed at U.S. Opens, it's best just to concede that it's probably both.
Phil has finished as the runner-up at a record six U.S. Opens, yet it is the lone major standing between him and a career Grand Slam. On the one hand, that's a superb display of sustained excellence, yet it's painful that he's come so close so often and been denied every time.
Phil Mickelson on Pinehurst No. 2: "This is the best test that I've seen to identify the best player." #gcphiltracker— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) June 10, 2014
An important note, though: Mickelson has always battled well on imposing U.S. Open courses, including at Pinehurst No. 2 back in 1999. The lasting story from that tournament was Payne Stewart breaking a tie on the 17th to pull away for his iconic victory; Mickelson finished in second—at the time a new personal best at a U.S. Open.
Year in and year out, Phil is a U.S. Open threat. Despite his relatively poor play in 2014, expect him to be among the leaders again this time around.
Adam Scott (12-1)
There's no question that Scott has bad luck at U.S. Opens.
Watson was probably taking notes on Scott when he decided to play conservatively off the tee at Pinehurst. Scott, the world's top-ranked player, also benefits from his driver power, though it has not treated him kindly at this tournament in the past.
Adam Scott at majors: Masters Top-10s: 4 U.S. Open Top-10s: 0 Open Championship Top-10s: 3 PGA Championship Top-10s: 4 Just sayin’.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) June 10, 2014
In nearly any other environment, Scott would be the guy to beat. At Pinehurst, he's presented with two options: either play long and accurate or opt for Watson's strategy and work against his strength.
He has not displayed an ability to do the former at U.S. Opens past, and if he opts for the latter, he's setting himself up to finish behind players better suited to play that style.
Rory McIlroy (10-1)
Though Rory can blast the ball off the tee as well, he has a superior all-around skill set to Scott or Watson and should be able to adjust better to what the course gives to him.
As he told David Dusek of Golfweek, he's also wary of the challenge Pinehurst poses; to combat it, he plans to lean on his 3-iron, a club he does not ordinarily keep in his bag.
"It's a long course, a long setup," he said of the 7,565-yard No. 2 from the comfort of the PGA National Resort & Spa clubhouse after a practice session in 90-degree heat. "There are going to be a few holes where I need a 3-iron. I can think of a few par-4s where I'm going to need a 3-iron off the tee. The sixth hole is a long par-3 (219 yards), and I'm probably going to need a 3-iron into that green."
For a lesser player, opting for an unfamiliar club on a course that already punishes mistakes would seem like a foolish risk. That said, McIlroy is an effective mid-iron striker, and he's not venturing too far beyond his comfort zone to make the strategic tweak in his game.
He might not be at home at the U.S. Open the way Mickelson is, but McIlroy should have an easier time tackling this course than Scott or Watson will. Of the younger favorites, McIlroy is the most likely to join Phil in the Sunday push for the major championship.