Here are five to watch — for different reasons — during this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Age: 43. World ranking: 11.
Best Open finish: 2 (six times).
Even if Tiger Woods were here, Mickelson would be the most compelling character. His most recent Open heartache came last year at Merion, where he led alone or was tied after each of the first three rounds but suffered a debilitating bogey at the tiny par-3 13th on Sunday. He followed that with one of the great rounds of all time, his closing 66, to win his first British Open, and now arrives at Pinehurst — where his first Open runner-up finish occurred 15 years ago — with the chance to win the career Grand Slam. What else do you want?
Age: 25. World ranking: 6.
Best Open finish: 1 (2011).
After something of a catastrophic 2013 — in which he failed to contend in a major and didn’t win a tournament of any kind until November — McIlroy appears to have righted himself. “I’m one of the favorites,” he said Wednesday, and he’s right. He appears to have compartmentalized his personal travails, winning the BMW PGA Championship in Europe the week after he broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. And his recent record is perhaps the most consistent out there — 11 top-10 finishes in his last 14 stroke-play events, including two wins.
Age: 35. World ranking: 3.
Best Open finish: T-5 (2007).
Watson has developed a level of consistency that seems out of place with his swing-for-the-fences game, and he is coming off a performance in which he simply overpowered Augusta National in winning his second Masters in three years. But he arrives here thinking he’s going to have to lay back on some of Pinehurst’s longer holes, taking away his main advantage, and he doesn’t seem to be embracing the place — where he has never played before. “It wears you down mentally,” he said.
Age: 33. World ranking: 1.
Best Open finish: T15 (2012).
In 2011, Scott completely changed his approach to majors — preparing for them and concentrating on them more than ever — and it absolutely turned around his results. In his first 35 appearances in majors, he managed just four top-10 finishes. In his last 13 majors dating to the 2011 Masters, he has seven top-10s, including his victory at the 2013 Masters. The one event where success has eluded him remains the U.S. Open, where he has missed the cut as many times as he has made it (six apiece) and doesn’t have a top 10. “It’s hard to put a finger on a lot of it,” he said.
Age: 20. World ranking: 10.
Best Open finish: T21 (2012).
Spieth has never been to Pinehurst and is making just his third U.S. Open appearance, so he should be easy to write off. But with each passing performance, the young Texan appears to be reinforcing the idea he will be a conversation starter each time he arrives at a major. He battled Watson for the Masters over the back nine, finishing second his first time at Augusta National, then led on the final day of the Players Championship before playing the final 14 holes in 4 over. Still, no stage seems to be too big for Spieth.