By Dave Tindall. Last Updated: 10/06/14 11:04pm
Who will triumph on the revamped Pinehurst No 2?
After a drought which stretched back to Tony Jacklin in 1970, the Europeans have finally found their feet in the US Open.
Graeme McDowell ended the barren run with victory over Frenchman Gregory Havret at Pebble Beach in 2010, Rory McIlroy lapped the field with a stunning eight-shot success at Congressional in 2011 and Justin Rose made it three wins in four years for the Euros with an emotional success at Merion 12 months ago.
This year the tournament returns to the famed Pinehurst No 2 in North Carolina - scene of the late Payne Stewart's victory in 1999 and Kiwi Michael Campbell's triumph in 2005.
We're used to thick rough being the trademark of US Opens but, after a restoration undertaken by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, this year there won't be any at all!
Crenshaw and Coore set out to restore the natural look and intent legendary architect Donald Ross had when he designed and tinkered with Pinehurst No. 2 between 1907 and 1948.
The result is wider fairways that bleed into sandy wiregrass areas rather than thick rough, with Coore saying: "The best part is that I think we will see a huge variety of approach and/or recovery shots. Guys will have opportunities to try the most spectacular shots.
"On the other hand, if the ball is lying on softer sand or pine needles, the shots could go anywhere. People watching on television are going to be sitting there saying, 'What the heck was that?'
As usual, Sky Sports will have live coverage of all four days.
Tee-off times? North Carolina is five hours behind. The first groups head out at 6.45am local time (11.45am UK) from the 1st and 10th tees while the final three-balls tee off at 2.42pm local (7.42pm UK).
A general view of the 14th hole showing the rustic look of the course and lack of thick rough.
Pinehurst No 2 will play as a par 70 measuring a lengthy 7,562 yards. Defending champ Justin Rose says: "I think guys who played in 2005 won't have as much of an advantage because of the course re-design. There was a lot of rough in 2005, fairways were narrow, typical USGA-style fairways. But this year it's going to play I think more of a running game, almost a mix between a US Open and an Open Championship." Short-hitting Graeme McDowell, meanwhile, fears the big hitters may have conditions to suit: "I'm just worried that with no rough, this year's US Open is going to give the bombers a little too much space. That's my only concern." There is universal agreement that the classic Donald Ross-style upturned saucer greens will be the course's biggest defence. Miss them and there's a premium on short-game skills.
We're used to something around even par being the magic number in US Opens and, indeed, the last two winners of this tournament at Pinehurst posted evens (Michael Campbell, 2005) and -1 (Payne Stewart 1999). In all, the last 10 winning totals were: +1 (Justin Rose, 2013), +1 (Webb Simpson, 2012), -16 (Roy McIlroy, 2011), Evens (Graeme McDowell, 2010), -4 (Lucas Glover, 2009), -1 (Tiger Woods, 2008), +5 (Angel Cabrera, 2007), +5 (Geoff Ogilvy, 2006), Evens (Michael Campbell, 2005), -4 (Retief Goosen, 2004). As for this year, USGA executive director Mike Davis says: "My read on Pinehurst is you could see 10-, 11- or 12-under win if we are unlucky and we get some storms and it softens up the greens and they can throw darts at them. But I can see where 3- or 4-over would win if it happens to be firm."
The forecast suggests the former of Davis' predictions with t-storms predicted throughout tournament week. That, of course, brings a Monday finish into play.
The leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Rory won the US Open by eight shots in 2011
Rory McIlroy (10/1): The Northern Irishman produced an astonishing performance to win the 2011 event by eight shots in wet conditions at Congressional so surely won't mind the rainy forecast. He took a look at Pinehurst last week and said: "I loved what I saw, I really did. I love what they've done with the native areas by taking the deep rough away." He's had plenty of strong results this year, with a come-from-behind victory in the recent BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth ending a frustrating winless streak. Last time out he had a strange first 36 holes at Memorial - a 63 to lead after day one and a 78 in round two. He's also nursing a knee injury which could be a concern.
Adam Scott (14/1): The Aussie's record in this event is curiously poor with a tied 15th in 2012 his best performance. It's the one blot on a superb recent record in the majors which shows 10 finishes of 15th or better in the last 13. He had a look at the course last week and was asked if it reminded him of the Australian courses back home. "Some things are similar to some areas of the sandbelt in Melbourne," said Scott, "although I'd probably says it's a little more severe here. This is the US Open after all." Current form couldn't be much better with a win at Colonial and a tie fourth at Memorial on his last two starts.
Phil Mickelson (16/1): "Pinehurst is the perfect setup for me so I have to think I have a phenomenal chance this year," says Mickelson. And it's hard to argue. Some extra room off the tee and the big emphasis on short-game magic around the greens plays right into his hands and he warmed up with a tied 11th at the St Jude on Sunday. Having finished runner-up in this event six times, there are some mental demons to overcome but the left-hander had to wait a long time for his first major so, despite his huge talent which suggests he finds it all a breeze, he's used to not everything coming to him easily.
Bubba Watson (16/1): At over 7,500 yards and with no rough, Pinehurst should suit Bubba. He's also having a year to remember with a second win at The Masters, a victory at Riviera, a tied second in the WGC-Cadillac and a third at Memorial last time out. Mental strength is a big part of winning the US Open and the way he closed out victory at Augusta back in April suggests he's come on leaps and bounds in that area. HIs US Open record is patchy but does show a fifth back in 2007 and, arguably, he's the best player on the planet at the moment.
Justin Rose (25/1): Winning back-to-back US Opens is a huge ask and, since 1951, it's only been managed once (Curtis Strange in 1988/1989). Being mentally fresh is vital for this, the most attritional of the four majors, and Rose will have all the extra media demands to deal with this week. On the plus side, he's played well in many of the big US events this year (14th Masters, 5th Wells Fargo, 4th Players Championship) and also has a couple of other US Open top 10s under his belt. He's also 22nd in this year's Scrambling stats which bodes well.
Jordan Spieth (25/1): The 20-year-old made his US Open debut in 2012 and finished an excellent 21st to finish as low amateur. He turned pro later that year and hasn't looked back since. Already this year he's shared the 54-hole lead on his Masters debut (he finished tied second) and made a big run at the Players Championship (again leading before taking fourth). He's 11th in Scrambling, 7th in Scoring Average and 24th in Bogey Avoidance so that priceless ability to not waste shots should stand him in good stead this week.
Matt Kuchar (25/1): His consistency and calm temperament point to a good US Open record but one top 10 in 11 starts (a sixth in 2010) comes as a surprise. He also missed the cut at Pinehurst as an amateur in 1999 and in 2005 as a then struggling pro. However, on the stats (2nd Scoring Average, 12th Strokes Gained Putting, 6th Scrambling), he looks a certainty to shine while his string of big finishes this year (a win at Hilton Head, a second at the Shell Houston Open the pick) also suggests he'll figure prominently. All six of his top 10s in majors have come since the start of 2010.
Henrik Stenson (28/1): Compared to the other majors, especially the final two, the Swede has found it tough to excel in US Opens, managing only one top 20 (a ninth in 2009). That said, his last three results in the year's second major are 21st, 23rd, 29th so he's not too far away. The same can be said for his 2014 form. Stenson produced some incredible golf in the second half of 2013 (winning both the FedEx Cup and Race To Dubai, finishing second in The Open and third in the US PGA) but has understandably struggled to hit those heights again. A seventh at Wentworth and a fifth in his home Nordea Masters in his last two starts suggests he's getting there.
Jason Day (30/1): Second to Rory McIlroy at wet Congressional on his US Open debut in 2011 and also runner-up in last year's renewal at Merion, Day has already shown that a razor-sharp short game gets you a long way in a US Open. Of course, he's also had a second and a third in four Masters starts so he deserves the tag as a majors specialist. A victory in the WGC-Match Play Championship in February looked to have set him up for a huge year but his progress has been hampered by a thumb injury. A 37th at Memorial last time out removed some rust and he arrived at Pinehurst last week to get a good look at the course.
It may all sound a bit too Hollywood for Phil Mickelson to finally win the US Open at the scene of the first of his six runners-up finishes in the event; the venue where, in 1999, he carried a bleeper, insisting he would walk off the course even on the final hole if the news came that wife Amy had gone into labour with their first child.
Phil Mickelson: Still looking for his first US Open win
His scrappy play this year (no top 10s) is another concern but if there's anyone likely to pull off the Hollywood ending and complete a career Gland Slam (winning all four different majors) at this particular venue it has to be Phil.
The course is ideal for him, he can suddenly find inspirational form from nowhere and, at 16/1, we can throw a few points at him without it putting too much of a dent into the staking plan.
Keep your fingers crossed and enjoy the ride.
While defending the US Open is a huge task, it's common to see previous winners taking the trophy a couple of years later.
In the 1990s, Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen and Ernie Els both won it twice, Tiger triumphed in 2000, 2002 and 2008 while Retief Goosen took the trophy in 2001 and 2004.
A strong candidate for a quick follow-up is 2012 winner Webb Simpson.
The American, a winner in Vegas in October, had been struggling but returned to form with a tied third place in last week's St Jude Classic.
That sets him up perfectly for this event which is very much a home game given that he grew up in North Carolina and went to Wake Forest.
It's not always the case that players cash in on home advantage but Simpson's first PGA Tour victory came at Sedgefield - another Donald Ross design in North Carolina.
Webb Simpson of the United States poses with the trophy after his one-stroke victory at the 112th U.S. Open
Simpson once said: "I grew up playing a lot of Donald Ross courses. You have to use your imagination incredibly well to get the ball up and down and there's not many straightforward chips or putts and typically the Donald Ross greens if you're right of the hole, the putt is going to break left, if you're left of the hole, it's going to break right. You kind of know what to expect. I played Pinehurst pretty much every week growing up, played all the Donald Ross courses there. I do love Donald Ross."
He's 9th in Strokes Gained Putting and 23rd in Scrambling so everything points to a big performance and, unlike so many, he knows he can get it done in this event.
If a magic short game is required, fearless Aussie Jason Day fits the bill.
He's shown at Augusta how he can get up and down from the toughest of positions and, although he's had some time off, it's often no bad thing to be lightly-raced going into a gruelling event like this.
The course should really favour him so have a punt at 30/1.
One interesting outsider at 100/1 is Brendon Todd whose name pops up prominently in a lot of the statistical categories that should count this week.
He's seventh in Strokes Gained Putting, 11th in Scoring Average, 11th in Sand Saves, 17th in the All-Around Ranking and 8th in Scrambling.
HIs last three results are a win in the Byron Nelson Championship, a fifth at Colonial and an eighth at Memorial so he's one of the form horses.
Talking at Memorial he said: "I think it should be fairly open and running off the tee, which sets up really good for me. And then the best short game is going to win. That's been me over the last three weeks."
He hasn't played Pinehurst but said recently: "I’ve won golf tournaments on all of those other courses down there, so I know how to play."
Finally, given the good record of Europeans in recent years, how about Frenchman Victor Dubuisson at 100/1.
He showed his amazing short-game prowess with a second place in the WGC-Accenture Match Play and, more recently, Dubuisson returned to form with a runners-up finish in the Nordea Masters in Sweden where he was ranked fifth in Scrambling for the week.
It's a bit of a punt but giving it a smash and saving par from impossible spots could be the key this week and Dubuisson has those skills in the locker.
2pts win Phil Mickelson at 16/1
1.5pts e.w. Webb Simpson at 35/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1.5pts e.w. Jason Day at 30/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Brendon Todd at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Victor Dubuisson at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
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