Pinehurst No. 2 figures to present a different challenge for the 2014 U.S. Open than the tournament typically sees. Though the signature deep rough is missing from the course this week, the small turtleback greens present a more difficult target, making birdies more of a premium than one would expect.
With Day 1 underway, here are the leaders from the tournament's early action:
Three days is plenty of time for things to change, and Thursday's action should serve more as a preview of each golfer's form rather than a definitive guide on who will be in contention on Sunday. Nevertheless, based on the tournament's early signs, here are some predictions for what to expect going forward.
Matt Kuchar Breaks Through
The 35-year-old got off to a hot start on Thursday with three birdies in his first nine holes to surge to the top of the leaderboard. With nine top-10 finishes in 13 PGA tour starts in 2014, Kuchar has been one of this season's most consistent golfers.
Though he has yet to win a major, Kuchar does have six top-10 finishes within the past five seasons. Consequently, many golf experts have pinpointed the American as a sleeper to win the event:
Kuchar has always played well at the big events. Besides his excellent form at majors, Kuchar has also won a FedEx Cup playoff event, a World Golf Championship event and the Players Championship. As the New York Times' Jeff Shain suggests, Kuchar fits the profile of the prototypical U.S. Open champ:
Kuchar fits the profile of recent Open champions: superb ball-strikers, relatively young but seasoned, still in quest of a first major title but respected enough that it’s no surprise when the breakthrough comes.
'I can’t hardly think of a single reason that Matt Kuchar couldn’t win this U.S. Open,' said the Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. 'You have all these boxes and he’s got a check in every single one of them. He’s playing some of the best golf of his life.'
Kuchar validated the pre-tournament hype with his excellent first round. As one of the most likely golfers to remain in contention, Kuchar is a solid bet to finally break through and capture his first major.
Phil Mickelson Contends on Sunday
Though Kuchar may be the early favorite, he is far from the only contender. Phil Mickelson birdied the first hole of his tournament, eliciting a reaction that indicates his status as the sentimental favorite:
It’s very early at the US Open, but seeing Phil Mickelson, “co-leader” is never a bad thing.— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) June 12, 2014
Coming off a season-best 11th-place finish at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, the 43-year-old seems as though he is rounding into form after a rough start to his 2014 campaign. Mickelson, who had his first U.S. Open runner-up at this course in 1999, may be facing his best shot to finish that elusive career Grand Slam, according to ESPN's Ian O'Connor:
But chances are, it's now or never for Phil. He adores the golf course ("This place is awesome") and, well, he turns 44 on Monday. Hale Irwin stands as the oldest U.S. Open winner of them all -- he was 45 in 1990 -- and a review of previous Grand Slam winners would suggest that Mickelson is on the clock and that there's a deafening tick-tick-ticking in his ears.
The starcrossed Mickelson has finished second six times at this championship, and 2014 may very well be another chapter in an odyssey of near misses. Nevertheless, expect him to at least give himself a shot at victory on Sunday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy Falls Off the Pace
The pre-tournament favorite McIlroy started poorly, bogeying two of his first seven holes. The 25-year-old star is obviously far from out of contention, and could join golf's most exclusive company with a victory this weekend:
Rory McIlroy (25 years old, 2 majors) on the course. In modern era, only 2 players have won 3+ majors at 25/younger: Tiger and Jack.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) June 12, 2014
However, despite a season full of solid finishes, McIlroy's proclivity for inconsistency could take him out of contention. He finished 15th at his last PGA start, the Memorial Tournament, after shooting 63-78 in the first two rounds. At the Masters, a second-round 77 prevented him from winning, though he finished eighth overall.
McIlroy's talent is undeniable; few golfers could string together respectable showings after such disastrous rounds. Nevertheless, his lackluster short game could be his undoing at a course that requires patience and consistent ball-striking above all.
If he does string together four consecutive rounds of focused play, McIlroy will be extremely difficult to beat. But given his recent track record, it seems more likely that a single poor round derails his quest for a third major.