10 US Open storylines to follow

CorrespondentJune 7, 2014 

A year ago, the U.S. Open returned to Merion (Pa.) amid questions about whether the grand course could handle today’s players. Justin Rose emerged as champion and Merion emerged with its reputation enhanced.

Now, the U.S. Open comes to Pinehurst, the men for the third time and the women for the first. Here are 10 storylines to follow as the men’s Open approaches:

Back-to-back Opens

There’s no question there is an element of risk involved in staging the men’s U.S. Open one week and the Women’s Open the next week on the same golf course.

Rather than focus on the risk, though, USGA executive director Mike Davis and others are focused on the possibilities at Pinehurst No. 2, putting the best players in the game on the same course in successive weeks.

Pinehurst might be the only place where such a doubleheader can happen. It’s the brainchild of former USGA executive director David Fay, who saw the success tennis has bringing men and women together and wanted to see if major-championship golf could do the same thing.

It’s time to find out.

Phil Mickelson

In the 15 years since Mickelson watched the late Payne Stewart roll in an 18-foot par putt to beat him on the 72nd hole of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, much has changed.

Mickelson has won five majors – three Masters, one PGA Championship and one British Open – but the U.S. Open has tortured him. He has six runner-up finishes in the national championship – more than any player in history – and he returns to Pinehurst, where he finished second for the first time.

Almost from the moment Mickelson captured the Claret Jug at Muirfield last July in Scotland, this U.S. Open has had a bulls-eye on it.

Is the moment too big? Or is it just right?

The new No. 2

The U.S. Open seems almost always to be as much about the course as it is about the players, and this year won’t be any different.

This will be the third U.S. Open played at No. 2 in 15 years, but this will be a very different course after the major renovation/restoration by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

Gone are acres of deep Bermuda rough, which robbed No. 2 of much of its strategic charm and challenge. Instead, wide fairways are surrounded by sandy natural areas sprinkled with wire grass, pine cones and natural vegetation.

The greens and the surrounding areas are as demanding as ever, accentuating the championship’s goal of testing both the mental and physical skills of each player.

No Tiger

A few months ago, before his back surgery, Tiger Woods was talking about the sites of golf’s major championships this year. When he came to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Woods noted he finished third in the 1999 U.S. Open and second in 2005 at Pinehurst. “I’m trending the right way,” Woods said.

But Woods won’t be in Pinehurst, his career on hold while he recovers from back surgery in March. This U.S. Open will mark the sixth anniversary of Woods’ last major championship victory – a long pause with 14 victories in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.

Jordan Spieth

Just 20, Spieth is the youngest American player ever ranked in the top 10, and though he’s only in his second PGA Tour season, he plays like he’s been out there for a decade.

He also seems to relish the big stage and big moments. They don’t get much bigger than the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

The par-3s

The four short holes at No. 2 comprise a brilliant set of par-3s that offer distinct challenges and could determine the champion.

The sixth hole can be played from 245 yards to a green that falls off on every side, particularly in the front. The ninth hole is gorgeous with a two-tiered green that features a tiny landing area when the hole is cut in the back left.

The 15th green is similar to the sixth with its rolled down edges and nothing to save a shot that goes long. Then there’s the beautifully bunkered 17th, which will require a medium-iron shot and has the potential to define the winner.

Nos. 4 and 5

For decades, the fourth hole has been a relatively short par-5 and the fifth hole a brutally difficult par-4.

For this U.S. Open, they’ve been adjusted. The fourth hole will play as a 529-yard par-4 (the tee shot is downhill) while the fifth has been converted into a 579-yard par-5. Purists may argue with tinkering with the fifth hole, considered one of the world’s best par-4s, but the fifth was originally a par-5.

As USGA boss Mike Davis says, the two holes will play to a combined par of nine. Think of it that way.

The weather

It’s June in North Carolina. That means heat, some humidity and the possibility of thunderstorms.

Ideally, the Opens will be played in warm, dry conditions with a bit of breeze. It will allow the putting surfaces to be firm and fast and will make it easier for off-line tee shots to roll through fairways and into the natural areas.

If it rains, officials believe they can keep the greens firm enough and fast enough to demand precision on approach shots. Heavy rains, obviously, create more problems.

Weather is a part of the game. The hope is it won’t be too much a part of these U.S. Opens.

Power players

Bubba Watson overpowered Augusta National in winning his second Masters in April, but can that style work at the U.S. Open?

Length is always an advantage, but it’s typically tempered at the U.S. Open because of tight fairways. At Pinehurst No. 2, the fairways are more than 30 yards wide on average, giving bombers more room to fire away.

How low will they go?

Par has seemed sacred through the history of the U.S. Open, but it’s possible the scores will be lower this year because of wider fairways and no dense, deep chop-out rough. Errant shots can still find a nest of trouble in the ragged natural areas, but there’s a fair chance of getting a good lie off the fairway, too.

Soaking rain always lowers scores and it would probably do the same at Pinehurst. If it’s hot and dry, though, keeping shots on the treacherous greens will be immensely challenging.

Davis said he’s fine if scores are lower than usual.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post ( www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.

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