The World Cup isn’t the only giant, international sporting event getting underway today. The US Open, golf’s second major of the year, teed off this morning and there will be no shortage of star power present and accounted for in this, the 114th playing of the tournament.
The famed Pinehurst No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C., will play host to this major for the third time in the past 15 years and with a variety of changes in its architecture designed to increase scoring and allow players to break out the big guns with more regularity, this edition of the US Open looks to be a far cry from the usual black number-filled battles of attrition so commonly played on Father’s Day weekend.
The most glaring gap in this year’s field is again Tiger Woods, who is still out tending to a back injury that required serious surgery (and while we’re here, it’s now been six years since Tiger won a major, which is absolutely mind-boggling considering where he once was). But while Tiger’s absence always hovers on the periphery of each major he misses, there remain plenty of names to watch. Here are a few.
WON’T WIN BUT WILL BE FUN TO WATCH – Bubba Watson
Bubba plays the role of golf’s resident character with his buttoned to the top button shirts and pink driver and “aw shucks’’ demeanor. But he’s also a massively long hitter who is also capable of shots that seem to defy the laws of physics. He’s been one of the best players on tour all year, if not the best, winning his second green jacket at the Masters in April to go with another victory, two runner-up finishes, and a healthy third place at the Memorial (Jack Nicklaus’s tournament) two weeks ago. But even though Bubba will provide viewers and fans plenty of entertainment over the weekend, it’s next to impossible to win more than one major in a single year let alone two in a row, which Bubba won’t be able to overcome.
COULD WIN BUT WON’T – Matt Kuchar
Kuchar tops the list of players (along with Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, and even old-timers like Greg Norman, among others) who are just good enough to compete but never win a major. Each time one rolls around, there he is, forever being sold as “due’’ to finally break through and claim his first big one only to find a way to not get it done, with the most recent example being this year’s Masters, in which he led going into the final round only to four-putt the par-3 fourth hole and wind up finishing tied for fifth. Kuchar lives in the top 10 at pretty much every tournament but although he’s managed to place as high third in a major (the 2012 Masters), he just can’t close the deal. Players like Kuchar represent the clearest example of how golf is 100 percent a head game. All of these guys are good enough to win, but most can’t overcome the mental hurdles to actually do it. In this regard, Kuchar is the standard.
KEEP AN EYE ON – Henrik Stenson
If you’re looking for a slightly unfamiliar name to throw into a pool or maybe make a friendly wager on, Stenson, a 38-year old Swede who is the No. 2 ranked player in the world, feels like a safe bet. Stenson had an incredible second half of 2013, finishing atop the European Tour’s money list, winning the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and placing second at the Open Championship and third at the PGA Championship. He slipped slightly at the Masters, finishing 14th (his best ever finish at Augusta National) but his game, a nice mix of powerful and technically proficient with a steady putter, feels perfectly suited for the revamped Pinehurst No. 2.
THE YOUNG GUN – Jordan Speith
Speith, who will not be 21 for another six weeks, has to be considered a favorite despite being so wet behind the ears. He led on Sunday at the Masters, playing in the final pairing with eventual champion Watson and dueling him shot for shot on the front nine. He also led in the final round of the Players Championship, the de facto “fifth major’’ and oh, by the way, is the only player not named Tiger Woods to win the US Junior Amateur Championship more than once. Speith probably won’t win but his pedigree and resume are already so impressive and he’s played so well in such big moments that he must be named among the contenders. Don’t be surprised if the fans at Pinehurst No. 2 get behind him in a big way.
MIGHT WIN – Phil Mickelson
If the crowd does decide to throw its support toward Speith, there will surely still be plenty of fans rooting for Lefty, by far the most popular golfer on earth. This week, Phil goes for his first ever US Open title after coming up bridesmaid at this particular major a whopping seven times, most recently last year. Phil has become something of melodrama in human form, a soap opera with a short game. In addition to his quest for the career Grand Slam at Pinehurst No. 2, he will also continue to be dogged by the story of his role in an ongoing FBI and SEC investigation into possible insider trading and although his role in these proceedings has recently been downplayed (and he was reportedly cleared), you can bet he’ll continue to be asked about it. You can also probably bet that regardless of that or any other story he finds himself in the middle of, he will compete, experience dizzying highs and crushing lows, be right in the thick of it on Sunday, and still not conquer his last remaining golf demon. It’s not a soap opera — it’s just Phil’s reality when it comes to the US Open.
WILL WIN – Rory McIlroy
McIlroy is an interesting case. He has proven to be as susceptible to a mental meltdown in the biggest of tournaments as much as any other player out there. Yet he’s so good, he’s still managed to win two majors, at ages 22 and 23, the first of which was none other than 2011 US Open. McIlroy has been in the news lately for reasons having zero to do with golf but has still managed five top 10s in his last six starts, including a win at the BMW Championship in Surrey, England, in late May. Still, given some of his previous adventures, he could either lap the field this week and walk away with his third major or go to pieces this afternoon, shoot 80 and miss the cut. That’s how mercurial a player he is. But again, he’s so talented and so capable of destroying even the toughest of courses, that, along with his recent strong play, will propel him to victory.