This week marks the 31st event of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, as players head to Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open. Each week, a panel of experts will offer up their picks from four groups of players, based on Golf Channel's fantasy game, Fantasy Challenge. We will also keep track of their scores and standings. The panel includes: senior writers Rex Hoggard, Randall Mell and Jason Sobel; contributors John Hawkins and John Antonini; editorial director Jay Coffin; 'Morning Drive' host Gary Williams; staff writer Ryan Lavner and defending fantasy champion Charlie Rymer.
Group 1: Adam Scott: He may have arrived at the world's top ranking from his couch, but Scott has proven to be a world-beater since that landmark event, with a win at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and a tie for fourth at the Memorial.
Group 2: Steve Stricker: The part-time player has taken a little longer to play his way into game shape this season, but following a tie for sixth at the Memorial he seems to have finally arrived. He's also played well at Pinehurst in the past, having finished fifth at the 1999 Open.
Group 3: Paul Casey: The last time the U.S. Open champion came out of sectional qualifying it was Lucas Glover in 2009. In '09, he was paired with Woody Austin at the Columbus, Ohio qualifier. Casey was paired with Austin last week in Ohio when he punched his Pinehurst ticket. If that isn't convincing enough, the Englishman is playing some of his best golf in two years.
Group 4: Aaron Baddeley: Before the Australian lapsed into an extended slump, he was a regular on major championship leaderboards, including back-to-back top-30 finishes at the U.S. Open in 2007 and 2008. His game seems to be coming around just in time for Pinehurst.
Group 1: Matt Kuchar: Oh, what a year this could have been. Kuchar leads the PGA Tour with nine top 10s this season and should have more than one win. A victory at Pinehurst will help him forget those poor final rounds in San Antonio, Houston and Augusta.
Group 2: Dustin Johnson: If not for a collapse in 2010 at Pebble Beach, he'd already have an Open title. He profiles nicely this year, ranking high in the FedEx Cup standings and the world ranking, as well as GIR and putting average.
Group 3: Ryan Palmer: Never a threat at a major, Palmer hits plenty of greens and has been putting well in 2014. He was runner-up this season at Humana and Honda. He's worth a look.
Group 4: Justin Thomas: No player in this group is on anyone's radar, so why not pick one of the guys with the most potential. Making his major debut, Thomas has played in six PGA Tour events this season and is seventh on the Web.com Tour money list.
Group 1: Rory McIlroy: If he's on, his best is usually better than anything else the field has to offer. McIlroy knows what it takes to win this tournament and is still buoyed from his victory last month at Wentworth. The Ulsterman's lofty iron trajectories will prove beneficial when trying to find Pinehurst's turtleback greens, and while everyone will be making bogeys, McIlroy's ability to make more birdies than most will help to separate him from the field.
Group 2: Chris Kirk: Not exactly a household name among a group that includes plenty of them, but Kirk has won this season on Tour and has made 20 cuts in a row dating back to 2013. He has high finishes at a number of high-profile venues: top 25s at Augusta National, TPC Sawgrass, Colonial and Memorial in the last two months. He's above average around the greens and his even-keel demeanor will be an asset this week.
Group 3: Billy Horschel: Horschel has hit a ton of greens all season long, but his putter is finally starting to turn around - as evidenced by high finishes at both Muirfield Village and TPC Southwind in the last two weeks. Horschel was in contention a year ago at Merion, and he played well during the stroke-play portion of the 2008 U.S. Amateur when it was held at Pinehurst No. 2.
Group 4: Jeff Maggert: Only five players in this week's field made the cut at each of the two prior U.S. Opens staged at Pinehurst (1999, 2005), and Maggert is among that select company. A winner earlier this year on the Champions Tour, Maggert is playing some good golf right now and after we saw the over-50 circuit play such a significant role at the season's first major, it's possible we may see a similar storyline play out this week.