10 Players to Watch: 115th U.S. Open

1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — According to USGA executive director Mike Davis, McIlroy and any another player who hasn’t had extensive practice sessions at Chambers Bay has no chance of winning the U.S. Open this week. Oddsmakers disagree, making the Irishman the tournament favorite at about 6-1. The No. l player in the World Golf Rankings missed cuts in the BMW PGA Championship and the Irish Open, of which he was the host, during a hectic recent stretch, but he also has victories this year in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship. McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional by eight strokes, claiming the first of his four major titles, including two last year.

2. Jordan Spieth, United States — The Masters champion is only 21, but he proved to be quick study since joining the PGA Tour, which might to be an advantage this week in the U.S. Open. Chambers Bay is new to almost everybody in the field, but he has dealt with that scenario and performed well since turning pro two years ago. Spieth tied for 17th in the U.S. Open last year at Pinehurst No. 2 and was low amateur three years ago at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He has been at the top of his game all year, leading the FedEx Cup standings thanks to nine finishes in the top 10, including victories in the Valspar Championship and the Masters.

3. Justin Rose, England — Even though he lost to Sweden’s David Lingmerth in a playoff at the Memorial two weeks ago, Rose has been one of the best players on the PGA Tour this season, posting a victory in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and tying for second in the Masters. He claimed his only major victory in the 2013 U.S. Open at Oakmont, winning by two strokes over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day, and he tied for 12th in his title defense last year at Pinehurst No. 2. Rose showed that he could be a major player at the age of 17, when he chipped in on the final hole to finish as low amateur in a tie fourth in the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

4. Dustin Johnson, United States — After withdrawing midway through the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week and citing an illness, Johnson should be ready to go in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. He might be the most talented player in the world without a major title, and he has plenty of scar tissue from his near misses. He tied for eighth in the 2010 U.S. Open after taking a three-stroke lead before shooting 82 in the final round at Pebble Beach. He missed a playoff that same year when he was penalized on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and he drove out of bounds late in the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s and tied for second.

5. Phil Mickelson, United States — In the spotlight more than ever this week at Chambers Bay because he will make his second attempt to complete the career Grand Slam, Lefty gave himself a lift last week with a final-round 65 to tie for third in the FedEx St. Jude Classic. He finished second in the U.S. Open an agonizing six times, and last year he tied for 28th at Pinehurst No. 2 in his first attempt to become the sixth player to win all four modern majors. Mickelson’s play in regular events has been sub-par in recent years, but he won the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield and has three runner-up finishes in the majors in the past three years.

6. Rickie Fowler, United States — There is an adage in golf that if you keep knocking on the door, eventually you are going to knock it down, and Fowler seems to fit that scenario. He finished in the top five of all four majors last year, including two seconds and a third, and he finished 19th or better in seven of the past eight Grand Slam tournaments. Fowler, who won the Players Championship for the biggest victory of his career and tied for 12th in the Masters this season, posted his best finish in the U.S. Open a year ago when he tied for second at Pinehurst No. 2, but he wound up eight strokes behind Germany’s Martin Kaymer.

7. Martin Kaymer, Germany — Based on his play on both major tours this season, Kaymer doesn’t appear to possess a strong chance of successfully defending his U.S. Open title. After Kaymer started the year with two top-five finishes on the Middle East swing of the European Tour, his best result since was a tie for 18th last month in the BMW PGA Championship in England. Then he recorded his fourth missed cut of the year, including the Masters, in his most recent event, the Irish Open. Kaymer claimed the second major of 2014 with a brilliant performance at Pinehurst No. 2, winning by eight strokes. He and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer are the only Germans to win major titles; Kaymer also won the 2010 PGA Championship.

8. Adam Scott, Australia — A year ago, the only Aussie to win the Masters would have been much higher on this list because he was ranked No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings from the middle of May to early August. Scott is down to No. 12, and his slump seems to be due in part to being stuck between the long and short putters ahead of the ban on anchoring that begins next January. However, he is one of the best ball-strikers in the world, and if his putting is simply average, he could contend this week in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Scott finished outside the top 15 only twice in the past 14 majors. During that span, he was the 2013 winner at Augusta.

9. Sergio Garcia, Spain — Still high on the list of best players who have never won a major championship, Garcia might fly under the radar in the U.S. Open this week at Chambers Bay, and who knows? Reports indicate a strong ball-striker should win, and he certainly is that. Garcia is playing well this season, tying for second in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and losing in a playoff to Rickie Fowler in the Players Championship. Garcia came close many times in the Grand Slam events. He has four runner-up finishes, including a tie for second behind Rory McIlroy last year in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, and two thirds among his 19 results in the top 10.

10. Tiger Woods, United States — Just as no one seems to know exactly what to expect from the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, nobody is sure what Woods will do. He struggled more than at any time in his career in the past two years because of injuries and swing changes, and recently he shot a career-worst 85 in the Memorial Tournament. However, he was tied for fifth heading onto the final round at the Masters two months ago until posting three bogeys on the back nine in a closing 73 that left him in a tie for 17th. The 14-time major champion got in plenty of reps at Chambers Bay, which the USGA’s Mike Davis said is essential for anyone who wants to win there.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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