THE OPEN IS HERE: Our top 10 to watch

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The Herald staff got together, or at least traded emails, and picked the top 10 golfers - not all pros mind you as the national championship golf tournament is an open event - who we think will be there on the back nine on Sunday.


He's most fans' sentimental favorite. The first of his six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open came here in Pinehurst in 1999, and winning here would give Lefty the career “grand slam” – wins in all four of golf’s major championships. Mickelson’s short game wizardry and the lack of rough at Pinehurst also suit his game quite well. Although he’s not played particularly well this year (missed cuts at the Masters and Players Championships), you can’t count him out – Phil seems to win when least expected. The flip side of that, though, is that he’s had major problems closing out a win in this major. But if he’s putting well, he could write a storybook finish – only this time, with him holding the winner’s trophy.


For all his struggles since winning the U.S. Open in 2011, Rory simply has the length, the ability to hit greens in regulation and the putting stroke to do well at events where the course is difficult. And he’s having a great start to 2014, finishing in the top 10 in most of the events he’s played so far and winning the BMW Championship on the European Tour. Historically he’s struggled in the early rounds of major championships. If he gets a good start today, watch out.


Watson, the winner of this year’s Masters, would probably be a favorite this week had he not stumbled and lost a tournament on the PGA Tour two weeks ago. In addition, he’s not done well historically in the Open – four missed cuts in eight starts. But we’re talking Pinehurst here – a long course with some forgiving fairways and an emphasis on creativity and recovery – all gifts Bubba possesses. He had a meltdown at the Open in 2007 while in contention, but he’s become a more mature player…we think. If he’s ever going to compete for a U.S. Open title, this is the year.


The defending champion almost never repeats in the U.S. Open, but with most of the eyes on Mickelson and Bubba – and the expectation that the defending champ won’t repeat – Rose could easily find himself atop the leaderboard during the weekend and not succumb to the pressure that usually accompanies that spot. Rose is a precise player whose iron play and short game are also well-suited for Pinehurst, and he’s long, accurate and consistent.


The world’s top-ranked player is probably considered a dark horse at Pinehurst because he doesn’t have the short game that Mickelson or Kuchar or some of the other contenders typically display. But with his mastery of the flat stick, and the premium placed on putting in the U.S. Open, Scott’s confidence and maturity should land him on page one of the leaderboard. He’s done well on tough courses this year (winning at Colonial and a top-five at the Memorial). He’s never had a top-10 finish in the U.S. Open – that will likely change this year.


Thanks to Scott and Rose, Kuchar is the latest to wear the “best player never to have won a major” label, Kooch is a great iron player and one of the game’s best scramblers. Because the pros are calling Pinehurst No. 2 a “second shot” course, because of the way Donald Ross’ greens repel errant shots, the course also sets up well for him. Plus, you have to think he’s due for a breakout performance in a major.


If patience and calm will be virtues around Pinehurst No. 2, at least outwardly with every round - good or bad - Dufner plays, Dufnering could turn out to be the right philosophy this weekend. Dufner won August's PGA Championship for his first major, shooting -10 at upstate New York's Oak Hill. Dufner fired a 63 and a pair of 68s there; there won't be the same low numbers this week. Dufner has shown U.S. Open toughness the last two years though. He played four solid rounds tying for fourth in 2012 at The Olympic Club and came from well back to shoot a final-round 67 to tie for fourth at Merion.


There was a point in Donald's career, only in 2011, when he was the PGA Tour and European PGA Tour Player of the Year in the same season. He's up there in the "best to not win a major" list. Better or worse yet, he's contended in all four. While missing the cut at the Masters, Donald's also tallied four top 10s in the last three months between the U.S. and Europe. He has the ball-striking ability. Will that translate into finding enough greens and avoiding three-putts?


Simpson didn't shy away from admitting he thinks of this U.S. Open as a home game on Wednesday. The Raleigh native grew up playing plenty of rounds throughout the eight Pinehurst Resort courses, including No. 2. His 2012 U.S. Open title came with a 68-68 weekend to finish one over par at The Olympic Club. The same tally would be contending, at the very least, here. He got his first Tour win at another home game at the Wyndham Championship.


Amateurs have a decent track record of making the cut through the last few U.S. Opens, but not really being in contention come Sunday. The English teenager won the U.S. Amateur to earn his spot this week, then made the cut but finished 44th in The Open Championship. This is Fitzpatrick's last tournament before turning pro.