Tour Confidential: Will Phil Mickelson finally win the U.S. Open? Plus, contenders and dark horses, and the Tiger Woods void
Every Sunday night, Golf.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.
1. Phil Mickelson has long been the most unpredictable player in golf. So what’s your prediction for Mickelson this week at Pinehurst?
Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Lefty showed some life at Memorial, and played very well at Memphis, in spite of the very real distractions. Plus, he's handled Pinehurst nicely in the past. Yet, his once genius short-game arsenal has displayed some cracks, and he's been iffy with the kind of four-footers one has to sink with regularity to win a U.S. Open, so those are negatives. Add it up, and I believe that the distractions will work in his favor, and he's peaking at a good time. I see him among the final groups on Sunday -- but not winning.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Seventh second. No FBI interviews. Two putters.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Phil will have at least one compelling early round that grabs the nation's attention then revert to the inconsistent golf he's been playing of late and won’t be a factor. It's a better week if Phil gets in the mix on the weekend, though.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Based on an insider tip from Carl Icahn, I'm shorting him. Big.
Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Phil will have his moments, but I don't see him contending. He looks tired to me. Hope I'm wrong.
Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Phil still doesn't have a single top 10 this season, so you might say something like T35 is most likely, which is why he'll probably either win or MC.
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): The forecast on Phil: cloudy ... with a chance of meatballs.
2. Other than Mickelson, who are the most compelling U.S. Open contenders?
SHIPNUCK: Rory and Adam Scott, for sure. Both have been playing well but still have much to prove. Bubba, too, for that matter. Pinehurst is probably the best Open venue he'll face -- can he win a major outside of Augusta city limits?
GODICH: It's the usual suspects: Bubba, Adam and Rory. The game is sorely in need of a dominant star. I'll also be interested to see how Jordan Spieth handles the spotlight. He may be only 20, but he's already set the bar awfully high.
VAN SICKLE: The soap opera that is Rory McIlroy is pretty interesting. Plus with two majors, he's playing for history. Steve Stricker, who has never won a major and is one of the most popular players on the tour, would be very compelling.
BAMBERGER: McIlroy, Scott and a player to be named later. But he will be an American, under 30, possibly a heavyweight, but he could be exceedingly skinny, and he will captivate us for three days.
SENS: I don't think he'll contend, but David Gossett, emerged from his years of darkness, has qualified, and that makes him compelling in a back-from-the-dead sort of way. But of the guys with a serious shot, I think Furyk is interesting to watch (despite the agonizing putting routine). He's won an Open, come through a bunch of recent heartache, and he's been playing well.
PASSOV: Watch out for Carolina boy (and former Open champ) Webb Simpson, who shook off some rust with a final-round 65 at Memphis to finish third. Matt Kuchar will also make some noise. He's been so steady all year, has a solid U.S. Open track record and is well up on the Tour's scrambling stats, which makes him a good fit for Pinehurst. And clearly, a free-swinging Rory McIlroy has to factor. Sans Tiger, and coupled with the new, unfamiliar version of Pinehurst No. 2, this is the most wide-open Open in years.
RITTER: I want to see if any of the guys who've been blanked in majors can finally snag one, particularly Spieth, Fowler, Kuchar, Snedeker and Westwood. Rory winning No. 3 would be massive. Jimmy Walker could win and become the front-runner for POY. And what about Watson getting halfway to a Bubba Slam? If you love golf, there are plenty of reasons to be psyched for this week.
3. Where does Pinehurst No. 2 rank among the courses on the unofficial U.S. Open rota (Pebble, Oakmont, Shinnecock, Winged Foot, etc.)?
PASSOV: We just don't know yet. This is not the same No. 2 we saw in 1999 and 2005. That said, it was -- and is -- a fantastic Open venue. I'll give the nod to Pebble Beach for aesthetics and Oakmont for the "sternest but fairest" test. Shinnecock Hills gets my vote for the most complete test of all, thanks to its variety, terrain and potential for wind, which amps up the shotmaking requirements. Pinehurst comes right after those three, though it might move down -- or up -- depending on what we see this week.
VAN SICKLE: Pinehurst No. 2 has hosted only two Opens, and now it's a different, remodeled layout. It's too early to tell where No. 2 should rank. I didn't think the old version was among the top-tier sites. Maybe the new version will be, but I'll withhold judgment.
BAMBERGER: Really hard to say because it seems we will have seen three different Pinehurst courses. The first two -- don't shoot me -- never did much for me. I haven't seen the new version yet. In the snaps, it looks great.
GODICH: I'm not ready to put No. 2 in my top three, but I like the unique challenges the greens present. I think we're going to see a lot of creativity around the greens.
SHIPNUCK: Hard to say just yet. It was a perfect test in '99, but they bitched the setup in '05, with greens that were too firm and too much sand in the chipping areas. It's much more visually interesting but may be a tad too easy to rank as a preeminent Open venue. Let's see what happens next week and then make the call.
RITTER: With three Opens in 15 years, it's clear the USGA loves Pinehurst. I happen to think Pebble is America's best Open venue, and might put Pinehurst in the next tier with Oakmont, Shinnecock and Bethpage.
SENS: It can't compare with the scenery of Pebble or Shinnecock, but it's every bit as tough as all of them. Architecturally, it ranks behind all but Winged Foot on Golf Magazine's Top 100 list, and I agree with that placement.
4. Tiger Woods will miss his second consecutive major this week as he continues his recovery from back surgery. How much of a shadow does Woods’ absence cast on Open week?
GODICH: There is always a void when Tiger isn't in the field. I'm always curious to see whether he still has any major magic left. Who wouldn't love to see him make one more run?
BAMBERGER: Oh, really none at all, by the time Thursday afternoon rolls around, and you have 156 other guys playing for our national championship. But I certainly hope his recovery is going well. The game is more exciting when he's in contention.
SENS: A giant shadow, a Mordor-over-Middle-Earth size shadow. He's by far the greatest of his era, probably the greatest ever, and despite all his recent struggles, any major he doesn't play in still has an asterisk beside it.
SHIPNUCK: He was missed at the Masters because the news was still sinking in, but at this point he's merely an afterthought. It will be awesome when Tiger returns, but until then, the game is doing fine.
RITTER: For the media, Tiger's absence will loom largest from Monday to Wednesday. Once the tournament begins, we'll have fresh stories and new faces to distract us. But I have a hunch the Tiger Void will play a role in another round of sagging TV ratings, just as it did at Augusta.
VAN SICKLE: Tiger's absence will be duly noted Tuesday and Wednesday, I suppose, but Phil's presence more than makes up or it. Like any tournament, once the Open begins, the focus is on the players who are there and the heroics they are performing, while the players who aren't there are of absolutely no consequence.
PASSOV: Just as with the Masters, Tiger's absence casts a gigantic shadow. What's great is that there are so many other compelling storylines to distract us, but the reality is that we will miss Tiger, just as he will miss Pinehurst. His own course design philosophy is based on his admiration for No. 2, stating, "I want to design a course that everybody can play, and walk, and not lose a dozen balls. Pinehurst is a great example of a course that's tough for us, but playable for everybody else. It gets players thinking, with options around the greens." He was really looking forward to playing here, and to winning.
5. For the first time ever, the U.S. Open will be played on a course with no rough. Barring severe weather, does this mean we’ll have an atypical U.S. Open winning score – significantly under par -- or do you expect to see a typical U.S. Open winning score – somewhere around par or a little under?
VAN SICKLE: If the winning score isn't under par at an Open, that course has either been overly tricked up or subject to unusual weather conditions. These guys are that good, they should shoot under par. I think under par wins at Pinehurst.
SHIPNUCK: I think 6 under wins it, which is definitely atypical.
RITTER: In 1999, the winning score at Pinehurst was one under. In 2005, it was even par. Last week, Rory McIlroy told me that he won't fire at a single pin all week -- his plan is to hit it to the center of every green and two-putt. Add it all together, and even par feels like another winner this week.
GODICH: Remember how worried everybody was at this time last year, how little old Merion was going to be defenseless? How'd that work out? It's the U.S. Open.
BAMBERGER: First off, I LOVE the idea of no rough. A course doesn't need rough, at all. Some of the great links land courses would be hugely more fun if -- oh, the sacrilege -- they'd go in there with sheep and mowers and CUT IT DOWN. The lack of rough will have almost no impact on scoring, as the greens will be so hard, in every sense. Five under, if there's not rain, will win by at least a shot. (Note: I am almost always wrong about these bold statements.)
PASSOV: Even with rain, the sandy subsoil and superb drainage will let No. 2 play like No. 2. However, to play as it should in its newly restored incarnation, it needs to be crispy, especially on the edges, where the extra roll out will cause all sorts of havoc. If they can keep it dry, scores will hover around par. If it's soft, the lads will go low, due to the extra width.
SENS: The winning scores at Pinehurst in 1999 was 1 over. In 2005, it was even par. The prime defense at Pinehurst has always been its greens, and that's still the case. Given those crowned surfaces, the USGA won't have any problem protecting par, which it always seems intent on doing.
6. Fox Sports is taking over the U.S Open from NBC Sports in 2015, so this will likely be our last U.S. Open with Johnny Miller on the mic. How much will you miss Miller next year?
BAMBERGER: Johnny Miller is the voice of the U.S. Open. It is actually a lesser event without him. Fox could bring in Tom Watson, or maybe Curtis Strange, and that would be a good thing. But nobody is replacing Johnny.
VAN SICKLE: Miller will be badly missed. The only two golf analysts who even remind you remotely of Johnny are Brandel Chamblee and Paul Azinger, neither of whom has the top job in the tower at 18 for any network. Miller's departure will leave a definite void of objectivity.
GODICH: I appreciate and look forward to Johnny's candidness. He'll be sorely missed. As will the best broadcast team in golf.
PASSOV: Johnny Miller will be hugely missed from U.S. Open telecasts. Sure, he defaults to some of the same commentary and analysis at times, but nobody was better prepared, or could break down swings as to what went wrong, or be as on-the-spot candid as Johnny, and for this jaded viewer, that was very much appreciated. As with my favorite football analyst John Madden, I'm partial to the guys that can and do predict what's going to happen before it happens. That adds real insight and color to my experience as a viewer -- and isn't that what we want? Sad to see you go, Johnny!
RITTER: I think Norman will be a good analyst for Fox, but there's no one else in sports like Johnny. I'll miss him.
SENS: A lot. He's my favorite guy to listen to. He might not always be right but he's consistently interesting. In an age of bromides, he's not afraid to administer a few bitter pills. Polarizing, of course, but the fact that so many people feel strongly about him one way or the other is a sign that he's doing his job well.
SHIPNUCK: Terribly. Have you ever heard about the 63 he shot at Oakmont?
The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.