With its challenging conditions, elite players, and final-hole drama, golf's U.S. Open is worth watching under any circumstances. But a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? Now that's must-see TV.
The second of golf's four majors kicks off Thursday at the breathtaking course on the Monterey Peninsula in California. One of golf's iconic layouts, Pebble Beach has been called the ultimate confluence of land, sea, and golf, and it's played host to some of the greatest U.S. Opens of all time. The Open was last held at Pebble in 2000, when Tiger Woods annihilated the field on his way to a 15-shot victory.
Tiger returns to the scene of his tour de force, career in crisis and marriage in shambles. Will the top-ranked golfer be able to bounce back at his old stomping grounds and win his 15th major? Will Phil Mickelson get halfway to a Grand Slam? And which qualifier will show up on the leaderboard come Sunday? Here are five things to watch for at the 110th U.S. Open.
1) Tiger: Champion or Missed Cut? In four starts since his five-month hiatus from the game (thanks to his multiple affairs), Woods' record has been pedestrian: tied for fourth, missed cut, withdrew due to injury, tied for 19th. To be the fair, the fourth-place finish did come at the Masters, the first major of year, and it's a well-established fact that Tiger cares far more about the four majors than other tournaments. But for the first time in more than a decade, Tiger is not the overwhelming favorite to win the Open. The old Tiger would use that fact as motivation to go all 2000 on the field and cruise to a dominating win. The new Tiger? We'll know by Sunday.
2) Can Phil Mickelson keep it going? Past experience says the world No. 2 and 2010 Masters champion has reason to be optimistic. The last time Mickelson won the Masters was 2006, and he followed that up with a second-place finish at the Open (and were it not for an epic meltdown on the final hole, he would have been the champion). Beyond the victory itself, a win at Pebble would accomplish three things for the fan favorite: Get him halfway to the Grand Slam (golf's Holy Grail), move him closer (if not all the way) to supplanting Tiger atop the World Golf Rankings, and firmly establish him as the best golfer in the world today.
3) Is it finally Lee Westwood's time? The 37-year-old Brit is the not-so-proud owner of golf most bittersweet label: Best Golfer To Have Never Won A Major. Westwood's latest close call came at this year's Masters, where he held a one-stroke lead over Mickelson going into the final round only to watch it slip away. Westwood showed his resiliency with a bounce-back win at the St. Jude Classic, his first triumph on the PGA Tour since 1998. Two years ago at the Open, Westwood watched Tiger make a birdie putt to force a playoff while his own birdie try came up short. Will he have the intestinal fortitude to persevere on Sunday?
4) Which qualifier will make headlines? There's a reason they call it the U.S. Open. 76 of the 156 spots are open to whoever advances through local and sectional qualifying. Your dad, your co-worker, the regular at the corner deli who always gets pastrami on whole wheat--anyone is eligible to qualify, provided they have a 2-handicap or better. And every so often, a qualifier captures lightning in a bottle and wins the whole thing. The last player to go through both local and sectional qualifying and win was Orville "The Sarge" Moody, who pulled it off in 1969 (Michael Campbell, the 2005 champion, only had to advance through sectional qualifying). Qualifiers to keep an eye on in this year's field include Jason Gore (played in the final pairing on Sunday after qualifying in 2005), Scott Langley (just won the NCAA individual title), and Erik Compton (currently on his third heart).
5) The overwhelming beauty of Pebble Beach. Not a thing to watch for so much as a thing to watch. And don't just watch--drink it in. Few scenes in golf, or in life, are more spectacular than the view from Pebble's eighth fairway, or 10th green, or 18th tee. It may not be spectacular on television as it is in person, but it's nonetheless a vivid reminder of what makes golf the world's most scenic game.
BONUS: Can Tom Watson do the unthinkable? The eight-time major champion is 60 years old. At 53, he held the first-round lead at the 2003 Open. At 59(!), he came within an eight-foot par putt of winning the British Open, which would have made him the oldest major champion in history by 11 years. If that's not enough, he captured the 1982 Open at Pebble thanks to a miracle chip-in on the penultimate hole. Can he win? It's a long shot, but not that long.