This week marks the 31st event of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, as the Tour heads to Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open. A field of 156 players will tee it up this week in the "cradle of golf," where turtleback greens and sandy waste areas will test the game's best as only the USGA can envision.
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Justin Rose returns to defend the title he won here a year ago by two shots over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day. Here are 10 players to watch this week in North Carolina:
1. Rory McIlroy: Quite simply, his best is better than that of nearly anyone else in the field. A winner of this event three years ago, McIlroy won earlier this month at Wentworth and has an array of top-10 finishes to his credit this year. His high ball flight will help when trying to land approach shots on turtleback greens, and while his second-round struggles have been well-documented, everyone will make bogeys this week. McIlroy's ability to reel off birdies in bunches - he leads the Tour in birdie average - will separate him.
2. Matt Kuchar: His U.S. Open resume isn't stellar - just one top-10 finish in 11 starts - but he hasn't finished worse than T-28 in this event since 2010 and he has been incredibly consistent this year, with a win and nine top 10s in 15 starts. Kuchar missed the cut here in 2005, ballooning to a second-round 84, but he's a different player now and the result will be similarly different this week.
3. Bubba Watson: Watson's stellar year continues as we head into June, having nearly notched his third win of the season at the Memorial. Questions remain about whether Watson has the temperament to withstand the pressures of a U.S. Open, but he is clearly playing with confidence this year and if it comes down to which players can scramble the most successfully - or creatively - from the sandy areas, his name has to be near the top of the list.
4. Lee Westwood: His window to win a major may be closing, but Westwood has been surprisingly consistent in this event since 2008, with a pair of third-place finishes and no result worse than T-23. Back in 2005 he was in the mix after each of the first three rounds at Pinehurst before a Sunday 79 dropped him back into a tie for 33rd, but the Englishman played well this year at both the Masters and the Players, so there's reason to think he'll contend again.
5. Adam Scott: Surprisingly, Scott still does not have a top-10 finish in the U.S. Open, but that may change this week. The Aussie won last month at Colonial and nearly pulled off a repeat performance at Muirfield Village, showing no signs of pressure in his first weeks as the world No. 1. Scott has been inside the top 25 in all but one start this year on the PGA Tour, and if he can get that long putter to cooperate on the greens at No. 2, he'll add to that trend.
6. Jordan Spieth: Age continues to be just a number for Spieth, who defied all expectations with a runner-up finish at Augusta National and then did it again with a T-4 showing at TPC Sawgrass. Spieth has seven top-20 finishes in nine starts since March, and he is currently seventh on Tour in scoring average and 11th in scrambling. Underestimate him at your own peril.
7. Jim Furyk: Perhaps not the name that comes to mind when you conjure a short-game wizard, but Furyk leads the Tour in the scrambling stat for the 2013-14 season and has a pair of runner-up finishes to his credit, notably last month on the Stadium Course. Furyk is one of only five players in the field this week who made the cut at Pinehurst in both 1999 and 2005, and since winning the U.S. Open in 2003 he has finished inside the top five an additional three times (2006, 2007, 2012).
8. Webb Simpson: A winner of this event in 2012, Simpson will have the crowds behind him at Pinehurst, having played college golf at Wake Forest after growing up in nearby Raleigh. Simpson tied for third last week in Memphis after a Sunday 66, his sixth top-10 finish of the season. He is seventh on Tour in the all-around ranking and his two Open appearances outside of his win at Olympic were pretty solid: T-14 in 2011 at Congressional and T-32 last year at Merion.
9. Phil Mickelson: Without question the biggest storyline this week as he chases the career grand slam, but hardly the lead-up that he would have liked: still without a top-10 this season, he's currently outside the top 100 on Tour in fairways hit, strokes gained putting, total driving and final-round scoring average. When it comes to Phil and this event, sometimes the results defy expectation - but there are definitely some warning signs as he looks for major No. 6.
10. Chris Kirk: Perhaps the opposite of Mickelson, Kirk is a player that has gone under the radar while playing some really good golf this season. A winner at Sea Island in November, Kirk has yet to miss a cut in 18 starts this season and has played well at some tough courses: top-25 finishes at Augusta National, TPC Sawgrass, Colonial and Memorial in the last two months. Currently sixth on the FedEx Cup points list and 19th on Tour in scrambling.