This week marks the second major of 2013 and the first time the USGA has set foot on Merion Golf Club since 1981. The rough is thick, the course is wet and the yardage is under 7,000 yards. So who wins it this week? We give you five to watch at the U.S. Open.
No. 1 — Tiger Woods
Major Championships — 14
U.S. Open appearances — 18
Best U.S. Open finish — 1 (2000, 2002, 2008)
Best Finish on the PGA Tour in 2013 — 1 (Farmers Insurance Open, WGC-Cadillac Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players Championship)
What he has to do to win — The days of "Tiger versus the field" are gone, and they're not coming back. Tiger's not quite as dominant as he once was, and the field is, end to end, better than it ever was.
That said, this is still Tiger's world we're living in. Rory McIlroy hasn't yet proven a consistent challenger, and nobody else on Tour can convince you that he can win on any given Sunday. Nobody except Tiger.
So what does he need to do this week at Merion? Play strategic golf, for starters. Woods tends to visit up close with the gallery at places like Augusta, where he sends tee shots in all directions before reasserting himself and breaking out a quality approach game and, at times, a transcendent putting game. You try that kind of any-way-you-can-get-it-down-the-fairway approach at a U.S. Open and you're asking for lost balls or extra shots.
He'll also need to rely on his putter; of concern is how bad he looked on the greens at The Memorial recently. He'll need to recapture some of that magic, because the greens are vicious enough that they can devour otherwise healthy scorecards alive.
Finally, he'll need to overcome the weekend yips that have plagued him for most of the last few years in majors. If he can post strong rounds Thursday and Friday and even reasonably competent rounds on the weekend, he'll be in excellent shape.
Just make sure there are no rules controversies this time, Tiger.
No. 2 -- Justin Rose
Major Championships -- 0
U.S. Open appearance -- 8
Best U.S. Open Finish -- T-5 (2003)
Best Finish on the PGA Tour in 2013 -- 2 (Arnold Palmer Invitational)
What he has to do to win -- An Englishman hasn't won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin did it in 1970, but if I had to give a nod towards one with the best potential this week, it's Rose. A man who struggled in majors to start his career (after that epic showing in the 1998 Open Championship, of course), Rose has found himself a little at these events over the last two years. A T-8 at the Masters in 2012 and a T-3 at the PGA when Rory McIlory was running away with it were both positives for Rose, who comes in ranked No. 5 in the world and with plenty of upside to his 2013.
Sure, he hasn't won on tour this season, but he's had four top-10s in eight events including a T-8 at the Memorial a couple of weeks ago.
For Rose it's all about the putter.
This is a guy that simply drives the ball as good as anyone in golf, but it's the putting that he lives and dies by, and he will need that confidence this week at Merion if he hopes to win his first major championship.
Rose is 26th in driving distance this year, 17th in driving percentage and 7th in greens in regulation, so if that putter heats up while the rains are falling I see a very, very solid week for 32-year-old.
No. 3 -- Matt Kuchar
Major Championships -- 0
U.S. Open appearance -- 11
Best U.S. Open finish -- T-6 (2010)
Best Finish on the PGA Tour in 2013 -- 1 (Accenture Match Play, Memorial)
What he has to do to win -- What does Matt Kuchar have to do to win the 2013 U.S. Open? Basically just continue to do what he's been doing the last few weeks.
Kuchar is heading into Merion with a second and first over his last two PGA Tour starts and looks to be as confident, and as solid, as anyone in the field.
The one struggle that Kuchar might find this week at Merion is the weakest part of his game; driving the golf ball. Kuchar is outside the top 100 in both distance and accuracy this season, meaning he isn't hitting it that far and can't really find fairways. The shorter golf course will help him, but he will need to improve that number to compete in this nasty rough.
That said, Kuchar is putting lights out this season and if that continues, along with his ability to scramble so well around the greens, and it could be a major breakthrough for the man that has had three top-10s in his last five starts in major championships.
No. 4 -- Dustin Johnson
Major Championships -- 0
U.S. Open appearance -- 6
Best U.S. Open finish -- T-8 (2010)
Best Finish on the PGA Tour in 2013 -- 1 (Hyundai Tournament of Champions)
What he has to do to win -- It has been a rather strange year for Johnson, the 28-year-old American that most think has the talent to win multiple majors before his career is done. His win to start the season meant his streak continues of seasons with at least one PGA Tour win, dating back to '08, but injuries have plagued the long-hitter and forced him to be sidelined for some of the big events.
His return at the Memorial was forgettable, but his play last week at the St. Jude was inspiring for those hoping he might contend at Merion, finishing T-10. Now we wait to see if Johnson can finally close out a major, and it will help this week if he can take a little less club and find more fairways. Johnson is 180th on tour in driving accuracy, so the more times he leaves driver in the bag and pulls a more reliable club the better.
He has been in contention at a U.S. Open before, and has played well in tough conditions at other major championships, so as long as Johnson is completely into this week mentally, I see him having some success.
No. 5 -- Phil Mickelson
Major Championships -- 4
U.S. Open appearance -- 23
Best U.S. Open finish -- 2nd ('99, '02, '04, '06, '09)
Best Finish on the PGA Tour in 2013 -- 1st (Waste Management Open)
What he has to do to win -- Mickelson wouldn't even be in this discussion if it wasn't for his play last week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, where he shot 67-65-67 over the final 54 holes to finish T-2. His approach shot on the 18th hole nearly went in for an eagle, which would have definitely tightened things up for eventual-winner Harris English. But Mickelson was impressive, especially with his putter.
While Phil hasn't hit the ball that well since his win at the Waste Management (where he was a mean lip away from posting a 59), his putter has been hot for most of the season — something that will definitely be needed at Merion.
Phil didn't carry a driver last week at the St. Jude in preparation for this week, so if he can dial in those fairway woods and hit the short stuff consistently, I definitely see him being in the conversation come Sunday. He's first on tour this season in birdies and eighth in strokes gained from putting, so it's simply if he can find the fairway this week at Merion. Do that and the man with the most second place finishes in the history of the U.S. Open might finally breakthrough.