2014 US Open Predictions: Last-Minute Picks and Projections

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2014

2014 US Open Predictions: Last-Minute Picks and Projections

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    Pinehurst No. 2, site of this weeks U.S. Open, offers plenty of challenges.
    Pinehurst No. 2, site of this weeks U.S. Open, offers plenty of challenges.USA TODAY Sports

    This isn't your usual U.S. Open, and no, there is nothing wrong with your television screen.

    The 2014 tournament is back at Pinehurst No. 2, where the U.S. Open champion also was decided in 1999 when Payne Stewart sank the 15-foot putt on No. 18 to beat a young Phil Mickelson by a single stroke; and in 2005, when little-known Michael Campbell emerged from relative golf obscurity to win a less memorable tournament and then quickly returned to it.

    But this isn't the same course now as it was then, or even four years ago. That's because three years ago, the good folks who run the Pinehurst resort decided they wanted No. 2 to look and play more like it did way back when Donald Ross designed its first nine holes in 1901 and then continued to mess with it until his death in 1948.

    So, according to the Boston Globe's Michael Whitmer, they called on the design team of Ben Crenshaw, a two-time major winner back when he played, and his business partner Bill Coore, a North Carolina native who used to play Pinehurst No. 2 regularly as a kid when he would pay $5 to play all day, as many holes as he would like. (Whitmer noted that the going rate for 18 holes at No. 2 today is $415, or 83 times as much.)

    Crenshaw and Coore have given the course a new look, or rather more of its old look, adding more brown to its color by way of more than 40 acres of turf that was removed and replaced by "a combination of sand, wire grass, and pine straw that should produce roll-of-the-dice recovery shots," according to Whitmer.

    So gentlemen, welcome to the U.S. Open's version of the British Open—and here are some last-minute picks and projections to chew on as the action commences.

World's New No. 1 Golfer Could Finally Be a Factor

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    Adam Scott does not have an impressive record in U.S. Opens.
    Adam Scott does not have an impressive record in U.S. Opens.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    The world's new No. 1 golfer, Adam Scott, goes off as one of the favorites, according to Bovada (via SBNation) in Las Vegas, who put him at 12-to-1 (behind only Rory McIlroy at 10-1).

    At first glance it seems they must have forgotten to check his horrible track record in previous U.S. Opens, where he has missed the cut in half of his 12 career starts and has only two top-25 finishes. A tie for 15th at the Olympic Club in San Francisco two years ago is his best U.S. Open finish.

    The strange thing is that Scott routinely plays well in all of the other majors. He has posted multiple top-10 finishes in every other major and has finished in the top 15 in 10 of the last 13 majors—but only once at the U.S. Open.

    Will this year be different or more of the same old, same old? According to the PGATour.com's Sean Martin, the new shaved areas around the Pinehurst greens and the scruffy, unkempt waste areas off the fairways remind Scott of courses he has played much of his life in his native Australia.

    "I think this course sets up well for me," he said, via Martin. We'll see soon enough.

World's Old No. 1 Golfer Will Still Be Topic of Much Discussion

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    Tiger Woods won't be anywhere near Pinehurst No. 2, but he will still be discussed.
    Tiger Woods won't be anywhere near Pinehurst No. 2, but he will still be discussed.USA TODAY Sports

    Obviously, Tiger Woods will be nowhere near Pinehurst during this tournament.

    But that doesn't mean he's completely forgotten. Wherever and whenever golf fans gather for a major tournament, there is going to be a fair amount of Tiger Talk until Woods finally returns from the back surgery that already has cost him most of this season and appearances now in the first two majors of 2014.

    When will he be back? And when he does come back, how competitive will he be? Those are the questions that fans, media and, to even to a certain degree, fellow competitors alike spend countless hours mulling over, with no certain answers yet available to anyone.

    Woods confirmed via his official website on May 28 that he still isn't able to play competitive golf, and he as vague about when he will be able to do so. Stay tuned, folks, but this week, let's forget about Tiger and focus on those who actually are healthy enough to play in this tournament.

It's Still Too Soon for Jordan Spieth

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    There is no doubt Jordan Spieth is a rising star in the game, but will he contend this week?
    There is no doubt Jordan Spieth is a rising star in the game, but will he contend this week?USA TODAY Sports

    Not yet, young man, not yet.

    Jordan Spieth is only 20 years old. Yet after being tied for the 54-hole lead at both the latest Masters and The Players Championship, the two most significant golf tournaments played this year, he arrives at Pinehurst with great expectations.

    But whatever expectations have been placed on him by outsiders cannot be greater than the ones he places on himself.

    "I believe I can win this golf tournament," he told reporters after a practice round at Pinehurst last Monday. "I feel comfortable on this golf course. I think it fits my game."

    He may feel comfortable now. But the first time he hits what he thinks is a good shot and it ends up unplayable in one of Pinehurst's new wastelands, he's likely to experience extreme discomfort that will dissolve into a full mental meltdown if it happens more than once—which it will.

Will Phil Finally Fill out His Majors Resume with a U.S. Open Victory?

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    Can Phil Mickelson win this U.S. Open, or any other U.S. Open going forward?
    Can Phil Mickelson win this U.S. Open, or any other U.S. Open going forward?USA TODAY Sports

    Playing in his 24th U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson is still seeking his first victory in the tournament. It's the only majors hole left in his career resume.

    It's not like he hasn't come close—repeatedly. Beginning with the heart-breaking, one-stroke loss to Payne Stewart on the final hole at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999, he has finished second or tied for second a stunning six times in U.S. Open events.

    He's got the short game to be creative out of the new trouble areas on the course, but his putting lately has not been up to par, to say the least. The key, he has said, is the weather. He wants it to rain.

    "Of those six second-place finishes, five of them, it rained," he said, via Newsday's Mark Herrmann. "So I'm pulling for rain."

    It isn't just that he's nostalgic. He thinks rain will make chipping and putting harder for everyone and perhaps give him an advantage. If so, he might be onto something. According to The Weather Channel, there is a 50 percent chance of rain Thursday and Friday, with a chance for scattered thunderstorms throughout the tournament.

    What a lightning-bolt strike it would be if it actually contributed to a Mickelson victory—but if he's counting on that, count him out.

Rickie Fowler Ready for Focus to Be on His Game, Not His Outfits

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    Rickie Fowler loves to dress for success on the golf course but wants the focus to be on his game.
    Rickie Fowler loves to dress for success on the golf course but wants the focus to be on his game.USA TODAY Sports

    Rickie Fowler is known more for the colorful outfits and flat-bill caps he wears on the golf course than he is for actually winning tournaments.

    So maybe it is significant that during practice rounds at Pinehurst earlier this week, he seemed to have toned down the look as he tuned up his his game. Regardless of what he's wearing, Fowler always is fun to watch and seems to inject enthusiasm for what's happening to the fans and fellow competitors around him.

    That makes him easy to cheer for.

    As for his game, well, he's still only 25 and seems to be getting better all the time. But his best finish in a U.S. Open in five career starts was 10th last year. He might hang around for a while this week and get some well-deserved attention, but he won't win.

Remember This Name

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    Hideki Matsuyama won the Memorial and made a name for himself in the process.
    Hideki Matsuyama won the Memorial and made a name for himself in the process.USA TODAY Sports

    Hideki Matsuyama has a name and a game to remember.

    He won the Memorial in impressive fashion recently and comes in having finished tied for 10th with Fowler in his first and, to date, only U.S. Open appearance last year at Merion. He also finished tied for sixth in last year's British Open, where he unfortunately suffered a left wrist injury that more or less made him disappear from the radar for much of the remainder of last season.

    He's now at least much healthier than he has been in a long while, although the Japanese native has said through interpreters that the wrist still bothers him. If so, it's about the only thing that does. According to Golf.com's Joe Passov, which cited Japanese sources, he is about as unflappable as they come.

    Nothing seems to both the young man, who is only 22. That type of mentality will be required of all golfers who expect to play through the new, tougher conditions at Pinehurst and be in contention for the win on Sunday.

    Don't be surprised if Matsuyama is one of them.

Is Rory Really Ready This Time?

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    The oddsmakers in Las Vegas believe in Rory McIlroy, but does he believe in himself?
    The oddsmakers in Las Vegas believe in Rory McIlroy, but does he believe in himself?Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Ask 10 golf writers who they like to win this U.S. Open, and at least six of them are likely to say Rory McIlroy. We know, because we asked.

    McIlroy also is the odds-on choice in Vegas, where he's rated at the 10-1 favorite to win, per Bovada (via SB Nation).

    But in reality, it seems too easy to poke a couple holes in this wide-spread and rapidly growing belief that McIlroy will emerge victorious this Sunday. Based on his sometimes erratic putting, his possibly current muddled mental state after cancelling his proposed wedding to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and the fact that in most majors lately, he's had one horrible round for every two fantastic ones with little in between, we're going to go against the grain on this one.

    McIlroy also is a high-ball hitter who has admitted—per SBnation.com—that he does not prefer the type of chipping-and-putting and playing-out-of-hazards game that likely will be required on revamped Pinehurst No. 2.

    That's not to say McIlroy might not be leading at some point, maybe even late in the tournament. We're just suggesting he won't finish the job, sort of like when he proposed to Wozniacki.

After Mastering the Masters, Can Bubba Weed Through the Open Competition?

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    Bubba Watson was all smiles after a practice round at Pinehurst No. 2, but will he be smiling Sunday?
    Bubba Watson was all smiles after a practice round at Pinehurst No. 2, but will he be smiling Sunday?Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

    Masters champion Bubba Watson does not seem enamored with the changes made to No. 2.

    According to ESPN.com's Bob Harig (h/t FOXSports.com) and other media outlets, Watson referred to the fairways as "weeds" and added that he plans to adjust his game accordingly:

    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 back farther than normal. It's still iffy -- I don't 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.

    This is risky strategy. He will have to be precise with those longer shots into the pins, or he'll find himself in constant trouble around the tricky, crowned greens that also can severely test a player's patience and all his abilities.

    With Watson in many of these majors, it's all or nothing. Two years ago at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, he missed the U.S. Open cut. He could either contend or do the same again here, depending on how well he executes his game plan.

Can Jason Seize the Day, Four Days in a Row?

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    Jason Day has come ever so close to winning a major and wants to close the deal.
    Jason Day has come ever so close to winning a major and wants to close the deal.USA TODAY Sports

    Jason Day says he's finally 100 percent recovered from the injury to his left thumb that sidelined him for nearly three months this year, according to PGATour.com.

    That's good news for the 26-year-old Australian, who finished second in two of the last three U.S. Open tournaments, tied for second in the 2011 Masters and was third in the 2013 Masters.

    "I've been close in a few majors now -- so close that you can almost taste it," Day said, via PGATour.com. "It's disappointing and encouraging at the same time."

    Now that he's finally healthy again, Day added that he expects to be in contention again. He began the season hot, winning the World golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship and tying for second at the Farmers Insurance Open before suffering his injury.

    If he can find that form again, he will be difficult to beat at Pinehurst No. 2. The question is whether or not he's back to that level of play yet.

And the Winner Will Be...

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    Despite his decidedly understated manner on the golf course, Jason Dufner is majors material.
    Despite his decidedly understated manner on the golf course, Jason Dufner is majors material.USA TODAY Sports

    Jason Dufner looks like a guy who would be fun to have a beer with, and he no doubt is. In fact, after winning the PGA Championship in 2013, Dufner told talk-show radio host Howard Stern that the Wannamaker Trophy holds precisely 43 beers.

    But the bottom line is that this dude can play.

    He goes off as a 40-1 long shot in Vegas to win this tournament, per Bovada (via SB Nation), but he's placed in the top five in each of the last two U.S. Opens and has precisely the type of game, patience and overall temperament to outlast the competition this weekend.

    Known for his stoic demeanor, whether he just chipped in from 200 yards or blasted a shot into the woods, nothing seems to bother him. That will be a key for Dufner and every player sure to be tested by tough conditions at Pinehurst this time around.

    Dufner also has been playing well of late, having finished second to Adam Scott in the Colonial last month on the third extra hole. He's poised to pull off a surprise by winning his second major.