The 2014 U.S. Open officially starts today, meaning the world’s best golfers must carefully navigate the always-difficult tournament and try to play consistent, mistake-free golf over the course of four days.
Sunday gets most of the attention and deservedly so. It’s the final day of the tournament, the stakes are at their highest and a winner is determined. But don’t forget about Thursday. The opening round of the tournament is critical, as it’s the first chance for golfers to put their practice rounds to the test as they attempt to get off to a solid start.
That being said, let's take a look at how the U.S. Open favorites may perform on Thursday.
The world's No. 6 golfer has the talent to win the U.S. Open. He proved that by winning in 2011 with a remarkable 16 under par. When McIlroy is on his game, few golfers can match him shot for shot, which is why he is the favorite to win this weekend.
Shooting well on Thursday is a common occurrence for the Irishman. He shot a scintillating 63 at Memorial earlier this month, and he has been brilliant in the opening round of every PGA Tour tournament in 2014, including a 63 at the Honda Classic.
While one inflated round—typically on Fridays this season—has often prevented McIlroy from winning tournaments, he won’t have to worry about that today. If he can approach the U.S. Open like he has any other tournament in 2014, he will get off to another great start.
Thursday Prediction: McIlroy shoots a two-under 68
The good news is that Adam Scott, the No. 1 player in the world, has won four tournaments in 2014, indicating he is in good form for the U.S. Open. The bad news is that Scott has a history of struggling at this major, never finishing in the top 10. However, he will be in great shape to reverse that trend if can replicate some of his first-round performances from earlier this season.
The Australian has not quite had the same consistency on Thursday as McIlroy, but he’s still been impressive. Although he shot a 77 at the Players and a 75 at the 2014 World Golf Championships, he also shot a remarkable 62 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a 67 at the Sony Open, a 68 at the Honda Classic and 69s at both the Masters and the Memorial.
The U.S. Open is always a daunting tournament, and Scott has yet to really figure it out. He ranks just 56th in driving accuracy percentage (63.58), per PGATour.com, a stat that will need to improve for him to have success this weekend. Expect him to struggle a bit in the opening round.
Thursday Prediction: Scott shoots a two-over 72
Phil Mickelson is one of the best golfers in the world. He is a five-time major winner, but the U.S. Open has eluded him, as he has finished runner-up on a staggering six occasions, including last year.
A win would alter how he perceives his career, per Jeff Shain of The New York Times: “I would look at my career in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one.”
However, the American hasn’t exactly played up to his abilities in 2014, having yet to finish in the top 10 on tour, including cuts at the Players, the Masters and the Honda Classic.
Mickelson has been all over the place in terms of opening-round production this season. He has five sub-70 performances—including a 67 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic last weekend—but he also has four scores of 74 or higher.
This weekend’s tournament will punish golfers who make mistakes and can’t make par. If Mickelson wants to achieve the career Grand Slam, he can’t afford to fall behind early because a deficit will be harder to make up than most tournaments.
His inconsistency this season doesn’t bode well at Pinehurst No. 2, where long, accurate drives will give golfers a terrific advantage. Unfortunately, that’s an area Mickelson has struggled with, as he ranks 130th in driving accuracy percentage (67.51) and 75th in driving distance (290.9), according to PGATour.com.
Thursday Prediction: Mickelson shoots a three-over 73
Bubba Watson is playing like the world No. 3 golfer that he is in 2014. He ranks second in the FedEx Cup standings and won his second Masters in three years. He has seven top-10 finishes on tour and should have the necessary confidence heading into the weekend.
Who will win the U.S. Open?
Watson has shot three consecutive sub-70 Thursday rounds, including a 66 at Memorial. He had his best opening-round performance at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, where he shot a 64.
But like Scott, Watson hasn’t found much success at the U.S. Open. Although he finished tied for fifth in 2007, his last three outings have left a lot to be desired, never finishing better than 32nd, including a cut. In order to reverse his recent trend, the American will have to rely on his driving and hitting greens in regulation, categories he ranks first (314.2) and sixth (69.82) in this season, per PGATour.com.
Thursday Prediction: Watson shoots a two-under 68
Follow Jesse Clark on Twitter: