Tour Confidential: Will Phil Mickelson finally win the U.S. Open? Plus, contenders and dark horses, and the Tiger Woods void

Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods will be on the sidelines for his second straight major championship.

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.

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