The 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst features one very unusual course change for the tournament: no rough. As the U.S. Open rotates around the country's many fine courses, the one tie uniting the sport's most challenging major from year to year has typically been thick, lustrous and sometimes inescapable rough left to grow so high it can swallow a vicious hack from an iron.
The changes to the course should prove to have a significant impact on the result, and looking at the players with the best odds, Rory McIlroy (10-1) and Phil Mickelson (14-1) have shown inconsistency in droves this season.
McIlroy shot 15 strokes worse in his second round at The Memorial after a first-round 63, and Mickelson has missed five cuts this year. The other favorite from the top three, Adam Scott (12-1), has never finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open.
With Tiger Woods still out nursing an injury, the underwhelming group of favorites and change in course design set up the possibility that a golfer with long odds could take home the trophy.
For the first time in modern history, (course architect) Bill Coore says, the U.S. Open will be played without its traditional rough. ... The fairways are wider, but they'll play firmer and faster, especially on the edges where irrigation heads were eliminated. With less resistance from thicker grass, more balls will race into the sandy scrub.
That will make for unpredictable lies even on the edge of the fairways, but because they are approximately 15 yards wider, bigger hitters figure to be at an advantage with accuracy a secondary concern.
Five of the course's par fours play longer than 500 yards, so length will be more important than merely staying away from the scrub.
Driving well will also help players create more manageable approach shots, which will be vital for dealing with the course's unforgiving turtle-back greens. Jason Day, a 28-1 shot, explained just how treacherous those greens can be.
"The turtle-back greens are difficult. You can go from one side to the other quick and rack up a big number very fast." -- Jason Day— TaylorMade Golf (@TaylorMadeGolf) June 10, 2014
With the unique set of challenges landscaped into the Pinehurst course, certain players will be uniquely suited to rise to the leaderboard, and McIlroy, Mickelson and Scott are not among them:
How many players will finish under par?
The course creates an unusual degree of uncertainty as to how the tournament will play out. ESPN asked their panel of four experts: "How many players finish under par?" One said it would depend on the weather and the conditions, but somewhere between three and seven. Another said 15 to 20. The other two said zero. The consensus appears to be that no consensus exists.
Driving to Victory
Bubba Watson (18-1) and Dustin Johnson (33-1) are the only players on tour averaging over 310 yards per drive, per PGAtour.com. Importantly, they both achieve that length with admirable efficiency. Watson ranks seventh and Johnson 12th for greens hit in regulation (GIR).
Though he ranks 31st, Louis Oosthuizen (66-1) still hits nearly 68 percent of greens in regulation, and he's fourth on the tour in driving distance. In terms of long shots, don't overlook Graham Delaet (100-1) who ranks 10th on tour in distance and first in GIR at nearly 73 percent.
These big hitters can counteract the unforgiving turtle-back greens with drive length and reasonable fairway accuracy, as shorter approach shots will help facilitate high balls and soft landings on the course's most punishing feature.
In terms of younger players at Pinehurst with a shot at victory, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth (25-1) looks to have a strong chance to finish somewhere on the leaderboard.
While much attention surrounds McIlroy, ESPN's Michael Collins said of Spieth:
He owns maturity beyond his years and the confidence in his shot-making abilities around the greens to save pars when others would not. Spieth might struggle with the pressure of expectations others are putting on him at such an early stage of his career, but if he can get through those, he can win.
Spieth has played well over the last two months, including a second-place finish at The Masters and a fourth-place showing at The Players Championship. McIlroy won the tournament at only 22, and Spieth will seek to become another young-blooded champ.
However, a mammoth effort and maturity beyond his years would be needed from Spieth to avert any crooked numbers on the quirky course. He is unlikely to maintain the necessary composure required to win over four days, but weather will play a significant factor.
If rain slows the course and partially neutralizes some of the unique hazards, Spieth could indeed make a run like he did at Augusta.
According to Weather.com, the forecast in Pinehurst, North Carolina calls for humid temperatures with highs at or near 90, plus a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms on Thursday and a 40 percent chance the following three days.
With Tiger hurting and McIlroy sputtering, golf would delight in a fresh-faced new major champion.
Odds taken from Odds Shark on June 10 at 4 p.m. ET.