Sorting through the contenders, and why Phil Mickelson will struggle at the U.S. Open

USA TODAY Sports

The narratives around six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson's return to Pinehurst, site of his first crushing loss in 1999, have been pounded into our head for almost a year now. But given what's happened this year, the prospects for that perfect story are on life support at the start of the 114th U.S. Open.

At some point all too soon, we will have to get used to all golf tournaments without Tiger Woods. Though the 14-time major champion is missing his second straight grand slam event, that time has not yet arrived. But his absence again looms over Pinehurst as it did over Augusta, though maybe a bit less in June than it did in April, with Phil Mickelson the obvious star of the show this week.

Crowds of three- and four-deep lined the ropes as Lefty and his entourage of youngsters -- Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and U.S. Open newbie Justin Thomas -- played for more than pocket change during a practice round on Tuesday. The obvious sentimental favorite after coming in second here to Payne Stewart in 1999, Sunday will once again pass without Mickelson winning his national championship.

Mickelson has regularly tried to tamp down expectations of a win this week by saying he has plenty of time to complete the Lefty Slam, while at the same time putting it right out there how much he's been anticipating this week ever since that heartbreaking record sixth runner-up finish last year at Merion.

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Photo credit: Jason Getz, USA Today

I'm not a fan of picking winners or losers, but I have to go with the group that says Phil won't be claiming that elusive Open trophy on Sunday; he could even miss the cut. He's battled his own injuries as well as his game, which has been lackluster since he won the British Open last year. With no top-10 finishes since then, he's also missed three cuts and had two injury-related withdrawals.

Along with the internal and external pressure to win, finally, his national championship, there are the off-course issues involving his part in a federal probe into insider trading.

Which brings us to Rory McIlroy, the bookmakers' favorite this week. He's another guy with issues outside the ropes, less than a month removed from calling off his wedding. Such non-playing issues for McIlroy and Mickelson may creep into their play this week, but two-time major champion Dottie Pepper told SB Nation recently that players like Phil and Rory can block out such outside noise and look forward to teeing it up on the course, which she termed their sanctuary.

Rory has had a terrific year, especially compared to last season's stinker, with a recent win in Europe at the BMW PGA Championship and six top-10s in nine PGA Tour starts. He's also pledged to play a more conservative game at Pinehurst -- taking out a wedge and adding  a 3-wood for some of the short par 4s -- and plans to leave flag-hunting on the domed greens for others. We'll know on Sunday if he sticks to his script of playing for the middle of the green.

Other potential contenders include the obvious players:

Matt Kuchar -- One of the best golfers not to win a major, is this finally his time?

Justin Rose -- No one has won back-to-back US Opens since Curtis Strange in 1989, and it's unlikely that Rose will accomplish that feat.

Jim Furyk -- The winner of the 2003 U.S. Open could grind out four days of so-called boring golf and be the last man standing come Sunday.

Jordan Spieth -- He and Open rookie Justin Thomas picked the pockets of Mickelson and Rickie Fowler on Tuesday, and he certainly has the game and maturity (lest we forget, he's just 20) to land the big one. He tied for second at Augusta and fourth at The Players, so he can step it up in big games and he says it's his time. We'll see if he can close out what would be only his second W.

Bubba Watson -- The two-time Masters champion is majors-tested and taking a page out of Rory's book by saying he'll play less aggressively than is his habit so he can stay out of the weeds. We'll see, come Sunday, whether the itch to pull the trigger with his big club gets the better of him.

Adam Scott: Despite a ranking at No. 1 in the world, I count Scott as a long shot, given his majors record, which includes (thanks to Jason Sobel) no top-10s at U.S. Opens in 12 starts, six missed cuts, and an Open-best finish of T15 in 2012.

When the festivities end and the ratings have taken their usual Tiger-less hit, we'll know which body present and accounted for is the new U.S. Open champion. We're guessing, though, that Woods, in absentia, will still win the week.

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