When U.S. Open play begins Thursday, the best players in the world will be at the mercy of a particularly unforgiving course.
True to form for U.S. Open competition, Pinehurst No. 2's long distances, tricky greens and treacherous conditions for players who miss the fairway lead to survival golf and high scores. In 1999, Payne Stewart took the U.S. Open at Pinehurst with a minus-one, while Angel Cabrera won at even par in 2005.
Now Pinehurst hosts the U.S. Open for the third time, and after a restoration, it is even more difficult. Whereas the course featured more traditional rough alongside the fairways before, sandy, weedy waste areas now line each hole, making accuracy from the tee all the more vital this weekend.
On a course this tough and with no clear front-runner, there are a handful of men with favorable odds to persevere at this year's U.S. Open. With them come some early thoughts on how Pinehurst will be tamed and questions about if it's possible at all.
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Is This Finally Phil Mickelson's Time?
No golfer in Tour history has finished second at a major without winning it as many times as Phil has at the U.S. Open.
Beginning at that first Pinehurst tourney in 1999, Mickelson has been the runner-up at six U.S. Opens. His unique blend of strong iron play and risky recovery tactics have proven effective over the years, and he now brings that approach back to a course on which he has succeeded before.
Though he has slipped in the world rankings in 2014, Golf Central notes that his slide returns him to a familiar position with this tournament looming.
Mickelson has been here before, he knows how to play this course and he knows how to get out of trouble once he gets in it. Everyone will have to make saves at Pinehurst, and Mickelson's long history of doing so will place him amongst the leaders from Day 1.
Will Bubba Watson's Adjustments Work?
There are two ways to attack a course like Pinehurst that punishes players both with its length and with its traps: Either play aggressively and shorten the holes, or play it safe to avoid the bad lies as much as possible.
Though Watson is one of golf's premier drivers off the tee, his track record of U.S. Open struggles and the difficulties of Pinehurst have persuaded him to employ the latter strategy.
Per Bob Harig of ESPN.com, Watson said:
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.
Watson's reasoning is sound in theory, but it puts him in a difficult position. Either he falters playing a brand of golf that is not his strong suit, or he is able to adapt to the course, but in a way in which some of his competition will be significantly more comfortable playing.
Day 1 will reveal how Watson's weekend is likely to go, but playing with the middle of the pack is his best-case scenario.
Does Matt Kuchar's Mindset Give Him an Edge?
With all the cost-benefit analyses that the players will be conducting, the guy who's most used to approaching the game with that discerning perspective would seem to have an advantage.
Kuchar said this, per ESPN.com's Farrell Evans:
I think I understand shot value better than most tour players. If I hit a 5-iron from 200 yards and I have a 30-footer on the green, I'm not going to be pissed off. I see some guys get mad because they have not hit the perfect shot.
How many times am I going to stick it to five feet from 200 yards? It's just not going to have much. If I hit a wedge from 80 yards to 30 feet I will be disappointed, but I will get over it pretty quickly.
Kuchar talks about two qualities that the eventual winner at Pinehurst must possess: an even keel and an ease to let mistakes go.
Playing on a course that has toughened up in advance of this year's U.S. Open, Kuchar should be able to battle Pinehurst more easily than the rest of the field. Guys like Watson will have to tweak their games and go against their instincts in order to succeed, but in making life hell for everyone, the course actually plays into Kuchar's hands.
Will that translate into Kuchar finding himself around the top of the leaderboard from Thursday on? Not necessarily. But as others struggle, his name will surely rise.