America's national championship returns to a venue that's often called the home of American golf. But the conditions at Pinehurst this week will be unlike any layout we've seen for the U.S. Open, with no rough and waste areas running alongside browned-out fairways. It will be a unique test, and as usual, the USGA should have a setup that protects par. The SB Nation golf team (Brendan Porath, Mark Sandritter, and Trevor Reaske) convened to offer some predictions for the 114th U.S. Open at a restored and original Pinehurst No. 2.
Who's your darkhorse pick to make a run and be in the mix late on Sunday?
Brendan: The prevalence of Georgia Bulldogs in the winner's circle has been a theme throughout the first half of the year, and building off Bubba Watson's Masters win I'll nominate fellow UGA product Harris English as my darkhorse pick. English is considered one of the top young talents in the game -- grouped in with guys like Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyam -- but he's still 80/1 this week and playing in his first U.S. Open. His greens-in-regulation numbers are solid, and he should hold it together enough around the green to be around on Sunday making some noise.
U.S. Open odds
Trevor: My heart says Miguel Angel Jimenez (125/1), but my brain says Graham DeLaet (100/1). Graham is top five in total driving and number one in greens in regulation on Tour. Even with an increased emphasis on short game this week, that seems like a good combo for the U.S. Open. He also has seven top-10s during the wraparound season.
Mark: I'll take Jonas Blixt at 80/1. He's been up to the task in big events -- be it majors or WGC events -- even if he enters not playing especially well.
Who's a big name, or multiple big names, that you expect to flame out and miss the weekend?
Mark: Rickie Fowler is really struggling and doesn't appear to be anywhere close to top form. Not a great place to be heading into one of the toughest tests of the season. I could see Dustin Johnson having major issues at Pinehurst No. 2, where distance is less of a benefit and work on the greens -- where Johnson isn't great -- is paramount.
Trevor: Not to be a downer here, but for me, it's Phil Mickelson. He may show flashes of brilliance (per usual), but his putting is off right now. Switching to the claw grip mid-round last week is not very encouraging for his chances this week. This is usually when Phil goes out and shocks the world, though, so maybe I'm an idiot.
Brendan: It was hard to listen to Bubba Watson talk about the course and the setup on Tuesday and come away thinking he's in a good place mentally at the start of the tournament. It's also really hard to say the guy probably playing the best golf in the world right now will flame out, but we've seen this before from Bubba.
At Olympic in 2012 after he won the Masters, Bubba sat there and said he didn't like the setup, thought it was too tough for him, and seemed exasperated with the USGA. While he's in an entirely different place mentally this time around, that frustration was apparent again this week when he called the greens "unfriendly" while not exactly giving the layout a ringing endorsement. A MC for Bubba would be totally out of line with everything he's done this year, but if he's not comfortable, he can quickly check out early in his round on Thursday.
The U.S. Open is called the "toughest test in golf" and the highlights of the week are often the different ways in which the course, setup and conditions, brutalize the field. There's not a ton of room to make birdies and make a charge on Sunday. Is the U.S. Open entertaining and fun to watch? Do you prefer this kind of setup?
Trevor: Yes! If you want to see guys make dozens of birdies, you can watch last weekend's St. Jude Classic. This is a different tournament than anything else and for me, that makes it compelling. At the U.S. Open, fans get to see the best players in the world think their way around a golf course and the winner is rewarded for being the best all-around player all week.
Mark: I'm not a fan of impossible conditions for the sake of impossible conditions. I don't think that's what Pinehurst No. 2 is, though. The course is very challenging with a very small margin for error, but if attacked correctly and precisely, players can find red numbers. Players will need to be up to the task on every shot, exactly how it should be.
Brendan: Eh, I think it gets a bit tiresome and we end up always talking waaaay too much about the course each and every day, and that's a quick way to get into niche stuff and turn off everyone but the already committed (and smaller)l golf audience. I suppose it's fine to go through this exercise just once a year, but I'd prefer it not be one of the four most important weeks of the year. I'll always take the potential for back nine madness with eagle and birdie chances at a place like the Masters over the U.S. Open grind. It doesn't mean the Masters setting is any less tense or pressure-filled for the players.
And to follow up on that, what do you expect to be the winning score?
Trevor: Payne Stewart won at 1-under. Michael Campbell at even-par. This is obviously a different golf course than it was in '05 and '99, however. There is rain in the forecast for this week. If we do get rain, the course should soften a little, so I will say 4-under gets it done.
Mark: The rain in the forecast makes me think scoring conditions will be a little more favorable. A hard, fast, dry course could lead to a winner being over par. If it does rain, which it looks like it will, I think the winning score will dip into the red, at 3-under.
What should we expect from...
Mark: I don't think Watson has the precision in his game to grind out four rounds at Pinehurst. Makes the cut, but is a non-factor with a finish in the 40s.
Trevor: He will refer to himself in the third person and stare down a cameraman at some point. As for the golf, do we ever know what to expect from Bubba? He could win running away or he can miss the cut.
Mark: I think he'll be right there on Sunday. He's got plenty of game from tee-to-green to contend and has putted very well this year. Think he's bound for a top 10 and wouldn't be surprised if he won.
Brendan: A lot of the metrics point towards another Adam Scott contention, but I'm still unconvinced of his work up around and on the greens. In his last two events since he became No. 1 in the world, he has a win and a top-5 finish. It's hard not to see him in one of those last six or seven tee times on Sunday.
Trevor: There's no reason he shouldn't be in the top-10 on Sunday.
Why we miss Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open
Tiger will miss his second straight major championship as the rest of the best in golf will tee off at Pinehurst without the former world No. 1, so we’ll have to content ourselves with looking back at some of Woods’ most memorable U.S. Open moments.
Trevor: Same for Rory. Hitting the ball as high as he does should be an advantage this week.
Mark: McIlroy has struggled to put together four good rounds in one week. He'll be good in three, but one bad round dooms his chances. Those issues will be magnified at the U.S. Open. I think he falls off the pace early, but plays well on the weekend for a backdoor top 25.
Brendan: Another person whose putting I just don't really trust right now. The up-and-down we witnessed at Muirfield Village was pretty startling following that Sunday win over in Europe. Another backdoor top 10? I think he settles somewhere in between the top 20 or 25.
Mark: Changing your putting grip on the week of a U.S. Open where the greens will be the biggest challenge has the makings of a disaster. I can't see Mickelson completing the career grand slam this weekend. I'd be less surprised if he missed the cut, than if he won.
Brendan: Who knows? I think we're putting a little too much weight in the unexpected spontaneity of that British Open victory last summer, and expecting he can do it again this year. Phil won the week before over in Scotland, and he's still tinkering around too much this year. Now he's going to switch to a claw putting grip just days before the most important tournament of his season starts? After two straight missed cuts at the game's biggest events (Masters and Players), I think Phil at least makes the weekend but is never a factor in the final round.
Mark: Spieth is great around the greens, which should increase his chances. If he can hit fairways and avoid the waste areas, I think he'll be in the mix on Sunday and finishes in the top 15.
Trevor: He was right there at Augusta, but the U.S. Open is a different animal. If he keeps his head on straight, he should contend on Sunday.
Brendan: His season of resetting expectations continues, and Spieth finishes in the top 5 at Pinehurst. Even at 20 years old, he's got significant and successful U.S. Open experience already. He'll be among three or four favorites starting on Sunday, but won't be able to pull it off and those who are already grumbling about his ability to close will have more fodder (justified or not).
Who's your winner of the 114th U.S. Open?
Trevor: With a little bit of rain and his ball flight, Rory McIlroy is my pick. Let's just hope Caroline Wozniacki doesn't change her Twitter profile picture too many times this week.
Brendan: Jason Dufner will get his second major championship in as many years. He will, as usual, keep it clean from tee to green and put on a ball-striking show into the Ross repelling greens for an advantage up on the putting surfaces. He's already won a major on a Donald Ross design, and his recent play suggests he's back contending and another win is coming soon.
Mark: The winner this week is going to have to hit fairways, scramble well around the greens, miss in the right spots and putt extremely well on the Donald Ross greens. Graeme McDowell has the game to do just that and appears to be rounding into form after a solid showing at the St. Jude Classic. We know he can excel on Sunday in the U.S. Open. I'll pick him to add a second U.S. Open title to his resume.