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Punch Shot: Which roller-coaster ride you going on?

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It's been a wild ride recently for Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy, and there are no signs of steadiness as the U.S. Open nears. We asked our writers: Which roller-coaster ride are you jumping on at Pinehurst No. 2?

By JASON SOBEL

Here is a partial list of things that can be described with “Phil Mickelson” as the adjective:

Leaping about 2 inches in the air after clinching his first major, then gloating about his vertical; pushing a wayward drive with the lead on the final hole of the U.S. Open, then calling himself an “idiot” afterward; hitting a 207-yard shot over water through a space in the trees barely bigger than his golf ball; owning eternal optimism even when the deck is heavily stacked against him.

Each of these moments will be prominently featured on the next edition of “That’s So Phil!”

For a man who once had an entire advertising campaign that revolved around wondering what he would do next, Mickelson has made a career out of surprising us – both positively and negatively.

Entering next week’s U.S. Open, with the pressure of trying to avenge six career runner-up finishes and knowing he doesn’t own a single top-10 on the PGA Tour this season and in the throes of being investigated by the FBI for insider trading, all signs point to a disappointing journey through Pinehurst. All of which is the exact reason I’m picking him to once again be right in the heat of contention come Sunday afternoon.

Does it make sense? Of course not. But that’s what could make this tournament the most Phil Mickelson of them all.


By RANDALL MELL

Phil Mickelson is made to order for this U.S. Open if outside forces don't derail him.

Hey, he nearly won at Pinehurst No. 2 when they had rough back in ’99.

With the new setup, with wider fairways, with no rough, with sandy waste areas allowing for more escape routes after errant shots, this U.S. Open feels like it's going to be a terrific fit for Mickelson.

Factor in Pinehurst No. 2's turtle-back greens, where a creative short game is even more of an asset than usual, and this U.S. Open appears tailor made for him.

If the FBI/SEC investigation looming over him doesn’t grow more serious, the stars just might be lining up for Mickelson to break through and complete the career Grand Slam.


By WILL GRAY

If there’s still room to board, I’ll take a ride on the McIlroy Express next week at Pinehurst.

Rory McIlroy’s recent flurry of 40-plus nines has garnered considerable attention, and his repeated inability to card a decent round on Friday is arguably the most puzzling trend of the 2014 season. But rather than focus on Friday’s 78 at Muirfield Village, I’m looking at Thursday’s 63 – when the Ulsterman proved once again that his best is better than that of the rest of the field, and often by a wide margin.

McIlroy has remained on the fringe of contention this year despite extended stretches of hack golf – not the Mark King variety – and he got a confidence boost with a final-round rally to win the BMW PGA Championship two weeks ago. He certainly has the game to win at Pinehurst, where his ability to loft iron approaches high in the air will prove handy hitting into turtleback greens.

Each of McIlroy’s two major wins have come from simply blowing away the field, and he has flashed signs of his former brilliance in recent weeks. While it’s still conceivable that his hopes could unravel around lunchtime Friday, I’ll take my chances.


By REX HOGGARD

With the possible exception of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy’s ride the last 18 months has been an A-ticket, white-knuckle deal.

Since winning the 2012 PGA Championship, the former world No. 1 has endured an equipment-induced swoon, a high-profile management team swap and, just last week, an emotional and very public split with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki.

He emerged from last year’s slump with a hard fought victory at the Australian Masters where he went head-to-head with future world No. 1 Adam Scott; and answered any concerns over the break up of “Wozzilroy,” the popular phrase for McIlroy and Wozniacki, with a come-from-behind victory at last week’s BMW PGA Championship.

There are still concerns. Particularly after he opened with a scorching 63 on Thursday at last week’s Memorial Tournament only to play the rest of the way in 3 over par.

But when it comes to the vast collection of potential contenders in two weeks at Pinehurst, McIlroy has proven he has the resilience to emerge from the deepest valley at just the right peak.

That McIlroy has already won a U.S. Open also factors into the discussion. He overpowered Congressional in 2011 with an atomic driver and showed flashes of that same brilliance last week in Ohio.

By all indications, McIlroy’s rollercoaster ride stops at Pinehurst.


By RYAN LAVNER

Much has changed for Rory McIlroy since November – he won a tournament (Australian Open), got engaged, squandered a chance to win (Honda Classic), broke off the engagement, won another title (BMW PGA), tweaked his knee and shot a nine-hole score of 40 or worse in four consecutive PGA Tour starts.

That’s a tumultuous few months, both on the course and off, but one thing has remained unchanged: He’s played some pretty good golf. Since November, he has yet to finish outside the top 25, with 11 top-10s worldwide. If nothing else, the kid is resilient, and it’s a big reason why he’ll contend next week at Pinehurst.

Eighth on Tour in driving distance, McIlroy will be able to dial it back off the tee to ensure that he’s in the short stuff, then rely on an improved iron game to attack the revamped No. 2. The timing is right for a third major, chaotic life or not.