SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 13: Tiger Woods of the United States waits on the practice ground during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club on June 13, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods may be favored, but the real winner this week could be a golf course that eats the U.S. Open field alive.
Trying to predict a U.S. Open winner is more about luck than skill. At The Olympic Club, where bad bounces can lead to bad numbers and good bounces can lead to a winner, it's even more difficult to pick a name out of the hat.
Yes, Tiger Woods won his last tournament. And yes, the European contingent is strong. But the real winner may be the golf course, which is well on its way to standing over a trembling field, posing in celebration having conquered the world's best.
With that image in mind, here are a few players to watch and a stab at how each may perform.
Tiger Woods: It may seem like deja vu, but the story of the year's second major is the same as the first. Just like at The Masters, Woods is coming into the U.S. Open off a win. This time around, though, it feels different. His charge down the stretch at The Memorial was eerily reminiscent of the Tiger of old: an amazing chip-in, birdies coming fast and furious, solid shot-making and the putting to match.
There's no question Woods is the favorite, but he was at The Masters, too. And we all saw what happened. If he's striking the ball well -- and he's been pretty good during his practice rounds -- watch out. If he's fighting his swing, his week will spiral out of control in a hurry. The Olympic Course is too punishing for his swing to be even just a bit off.
Bubba Watson: Perhaps a trendy pick because of his captivating Masters win, Watson comes into the U.S. Open off a lengthy break from golf. His win in The Masters means a whirlwind tour of media destinations and various other obligations, and with a new child at home, Watson traded golf for diapers for a while.
Simply, this course doesn't fit Watson's strengths. It's long, in a way, but favors accuracy over bombing the ball (just as every U.S. Open does). Watson has a tendency to break out the driver and smash the hell out of the ball no matter the situation, but at The Olympic Club the consequences for a miss are great. And when Watson misses, he usually misses by a mile.
Phil Mickelson: In his final tuneup before the U.S. Open, Mickelson shot an opening-round 79 at The Memorial but then quickly withdrew, citing mental fatigue. That one round aside, he hasn't played in a month, making him a bit of an unknown heading into Thursday's opening round. But as we've seen before, Mickelson has the ability to pull solid rounds out of nowhere, just as he has the ability to implode in a moment.
At Olympic, his short game proficiency and creativity will be key. With small, fast and difficult greens, the ability to scramble may be the deciding factor in the tournament. And boy, can Mickelson scramble when he needs to.
The competition aspect of this grouping could make things interesting. If the three are feeding off each other and competing on Thursday and Friday, they may combine to elevate each other's game. After all, Tiger and Phil are known for their fierce rivalry and there's certainly no love lost between them.
Rory McIlroy: Because why not? He is the defending champion, after all. But, like many of the other contenders, he's been hit-or-miss lately. After missing the cut at The Memorial, he bounced back last week to finish tied for seventh at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. In that regard, his game seems to be heading the right direction at the right time.
On the other hand, his inconsistency could be cause for concern. Couple that with the narrow and fast course -- almost the opposite of last year's U.S. Open -- and it's unlikely we'll see a repeat performance.
Luke Donald: Would you bet against the World Number One? Donald is atop the Official World Golf Rankings, but still remains an afterthought in some regards. The Olympic Club fits his style, though, and a comfortable grouping to open the tournament should help Donald.
Lee Westwood: Because he's got to win one at some point, right? Right? He's consistent, which will come in handy throughout the week.
This grouping is also awesome, just barely playing second fiddle to Tiger, Phil and Bubba.
Zach Johnson: Last week's performance aside, Johnson is coming in on a solid streak that includes a win and two second-place finishes. This course sets up well for Johnson, who isn't the longest hitter but does play with accuracy. It's all about fairways and greens, and Johnson's ball-striking makes him an intriguing choice at this year's U.S. Open.
Jason Dufner: Another hot hand. Between the last week of April and the last week of May, Dufner has picked up two wins and added a second-place finish, along with only one poor performance. It feels like he's poised to breakthrough at a major and considering his recent run, why not this one?
Jason Day: Consistent and accurate. Just like those listed before him, Day seems to be the right type of player to tame this course.
The Field: Let's hedge here. Odds are someone will come out of nowhere to take the title. Because of the course, a few good bounces or breaks could easily elevate a middle-of-the-pack player to the championship on Sunday. The big names are fun, but The Olympic Club is so unpredictable, making The Field the safest bet of them all.