PINEHURST, N.C. — Other than the shock of seeing weeds sprouting at the edge of the fairways, this U.S. Open should be like any other.
One tough test.
The rustic, unkempt look of Pinehurst No. 2 has been a major topic leading into Thursday’s opening round, the lush, green rough replaced by sandy areas dotted with small wiregrass bushes and covered in natural vegetation — what the rest of us would call weeds.
The Donald Ross masterpiece now looks a lot like it did in its original state, and those turtleback greens are as testy as ever, repelling balls that dare venture anywhere close to the flag.
“It’s set up as the ultimate test of golf, like the U.S. Open always is,” said Rory McIlroy, the last winner to break par with his romp at Congressional in 2011. “I’m relishing the challenge of grinding out pars and having to get it up and down when I need to.”
Webb Simpson and Justin Rose won the last two titles with scores over par. The last time three straight winners failed to get into the red numbers was 1957-59.
Other than the challenging course, which is hosting the U.S. Open for the third time in 16 years, here are five things to look for in the sand hills of North Carolina:
LEFTY’S LAMENT: Now that he’s got a claret jug in the trophy case, Phil Mickelson will take another crack at the only major title to elude him. The U.S. Open has been especially cruel to Lefty, the runner-up a record six times — the first a dramatic loss at Pinehurst to Payne Stewart in 1999 — without capturing even one title. It happened again in 2013 at Merion, where Mickelson was in the mix until England’s Justin Rose struck a dramatic 4-iron with his approach at the 72nd hole to clinch his first major championship. Only five players have won the modern version of the career Grand Slam: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Mickelson has won the Masters three times, along with a PGA Championship and last year’s British Open title, setting himself up to join a very exclusive club. But he hasn’t won in 11 months, struggling with a shaky putter, and the only headlines recently have been off the course. Mickelson has been linked to an insider trading probe involving investor Carl Icahn and gambler Billy Walters. No one has been charged.
DOUBLING UP: The U.S. Open hasn’t had a repeat winner since Curtis Strange a quarter-century ago. The only other golfers to do it in the past century are all Hall of Famers: Ben Hogan (1950-51), Ralph Guldahl (1937-38) and Bobby Jones (1929-30). Rose is the lone player with a chance to break into that exclusive club this year. The Englishman has turned in some strong results in recent weeks, ripping off three straight top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour before he stumbled in his last tournament, missing the cut at the Memorial. He knows it will be a tough task to defend his title, but likes the chances of the 11 English players in the field better than he does their country’s World Cup squad. And if Rose wins, Strange plans to be one of the first to congratulate the repeat winner.
BIG MAC ATTACK: Like Mickelson, Rory McIlroy has been making headlines off the course — he recently called off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. The 25-year-old McIlroy has lowered his social media profile in an attempt to bring a bit more privacy to his very public life. Still, the Northern Irishman must prove that he can grind out major championships in the toughest of conditions, a trait that served players such as Nicklaus and Woods so well. When McIlroy plays well, he’s essentially unbeatable. He cruised to eight-stroke wins for both of his major titles, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA.
UNLIKELY WINNERS: In recent years, the U.S. Open has produced first-time champions from the ranks of the solid-if-not-spectacular players. Think Lucas Glover in 2009, Graeme McDowell the following year, and Simpson in 2012. If that trend holds up, keep an eye on Matt Kuchar, who won the Heritage and has nine top-10 finishes this season. Thirty-five-year-old Jimmy Walker is a three-time winner this season and leads the FedEx Cup standings. Brandt Snedeker has struggled this year, but is perennially a contender in the majors.
TIGER-FREE ZONE: One player who certainly won’t win this year: Woods. The 14-time major champion hasn’t played in more than three months after having back surgery, and it’s not known when he’ll be able to return. Woods’ last major title came at the 2008 U.S. Open, leaving him four major titles behind Nicklaus’ record. Since then, a failed marriage and a series of injuries have raised serious doubts that he’ll be able to catch the Golden Bear.