Wide Open: 5 players to watch with Tiger out at Pinehurst

Tiger Woods won't be playing at Pinehurst this year.

Patrick Semansky/AP

With Tiger Woods officially pulling out of the 2014 U.S. Open on Wednesday, the chatter now turns to who is the proverbial favorite at Pinehurst No. 2.

The U.S. Open always provides the stories around qualifiers and unknown contenders, but usually falls back to the world’s best and how they work their way around courses where shooting par is an achievement.

Here is a look at five players that you need to keep an eye on now that Woods is out of the picture:

Phil Mickelson

Always the groomsman, never the groom? Such is life for Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open. Mickelson has a head-scratching six runner-up finishes at America’s national championship, including in 2013 at Merion. His U.S. Open heartache began in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2, losing out to Payne Stewart. Mickelson needs the U.S. Open title to complete the career grand slam, and he showed last year that he still has enough game to win major titles, capturing the Open Championship in a convincing Sunday round.

"It would mean a lot to me – I would look at myself, I would look at my career, which is all I care about, in a whole different light if I were able to get that fourth one," said Mickelson on Wednesday at the Memorial.

Mickelson will turn 44 on June 16, so it’d be a great birthday gift to himself if he should finally break through. This week at Memorial will be a big test for Mickelson, as he has yet to record a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season – missing three cuts and earning just under $650,000. Mickelson spent his off weeks since the Players Championship working on his short game, knowing that it will be key to navigate around Pinehurst.

"My short game right now, which has not been great this year, is – after spending a few days, it feels good. So I’m curious to see how it goes this week," said Mickelson.

Rory McIlroy

Anyone that questioned whether his sudden breakup with fiancé Caroline Wozniacki would affect his game on the course got an immediate answer with his comeback win at the BMW PGA Championship on Sunday.

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But the BMW simply acted as the culmination of play that has been 180 degrees better than his play in 2013, when he started the year with new equipment and new pressures of being a top-ranked player.

McIlroy has played eight PGA Tour events this season, posting six top-10 finishes, including a loss in a playoff at the Honda Classic to Russell Henley. He also has three more top-10 finishes on the European Tour, including a T-2 in Abu Dhabi.

The World No. 6 has also proven that he can win a U.S. Open, throttling the field at Congressional by eight shots in 2011, although he has only one other top 10 in his career, a T-10 in 2009.

Adam Scott

How could the World No. 1 not make this list? Especially a World No. 1 coming off a come-from-behind, sudden-death playoff victory over the defending PGA Championship winner, Jason Dufner?

The key for Scott winning has always been his streaky long putter, as the talented Australian still only owns one major title, the 2013 Masters.

But Scott has been working on a new way of reading slope in the greens in recent weeks, with the public getting their first look at the AimPoint Express Read technique last week at Colonial. While some might think it is a Vulcan salute, it has allowed Scott to feel more comfortable over his putts, and that could spell bad news for the rest of the world.

Scott has struggled in the U.S. Open, missing six cuts in 12 appearances, with his best finish a T-15 at Olympic Club in 2012. The rest of the finishes (T-45, T-36, T-26, T-21, T-28) are nothing to write home about.

Matt Kuchar

Despite a rough last three rounds on Tour – he missed only his second cut of the season last week and is struggling in Round 1 at the Memorial on Thursday – Kuchar has what it takes to win at Pinehurst: the ability to scramble around the greens.

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The World No. 4 is fourth on the PGA Tour in scrambling at 65.37 percent, while also ranking 14th in strokes-gained putting at .491. With Pinehurst presenting tough targets for greens, Kuchar is also sixth in scrambling from inside 30 yards, which could be key to contending.

Kuchar’s line at the U.S. Open has trended upward after missing four of his first five cuts at the event in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2009. In 2010 at Pebble Beach, Kuchar fired a final-round 68 to finish T-6, the best U.S. Open finish of his career. He’s followed that with a T-14 (2011), T-27 (2012) and T-28 (2013). Kuchar seems to be making progress in his play at the major events, finishing T-3 (2012), T-8 (2013) and T-5 (2014) at the Masters.

Graeme McDowell

McDowell has the patience and attitude to win the U.S Open – shown by his 2010 victory at Pebble Beach. There are some similarities between Pinehurst and Pebble, as bombers can work their way around the course, but it still takes adept second shots and work around the greens to succeed.

“Pinehurst is an iron-shot golf course, a second-shot golf course," said McDowell in a recent interview with Reuters. "It’s all about iron shots and I love that you get an opportunity to go at it.”

McDowell nearly had a second U.S. Open title in 2012 at Olympic Club, but faltered over his final few holes in posting a T-2 finish. Outside of his missed cut at Merion in 2013, McDowell hasn’t finished outside the top 20 in the last five years at the U.S. Open, finishing T-14 in 2011 and T-18 in 2009.