The second major championship of the season takes place this week in the Pacific Northwest with the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
It'll be interesting to say the least. Most of the field hasn't seen the course, which opened in 2007, until this week. There's also the fact that Chambers Bay, with a gorgeous backdrop of Puget Sound, looks more like what you'd expect to see a British Open played on than a U.S. Open.
The USGA is known for providing a stern test. This week will be no different. As is always the case in a U.S. Open, patience will likely be the greatest attribute of the player who wins.
It will be fascinating to watch.
Here are the five players you'll want to keep an eye on at Chambers Bay.
5. Ernie Els
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T13 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: To say this has been a rough season for the Big Easy would be an understatement. He has missed more cuts (six) than he's made (five). In 11 starts, he has just two finishes inside the top 25. I'm trying to come to terms with labeling a four-time major winner a "dark horse" but that's what I'm going to do here in the case of Els. He shines in the majors. Need proof? For starters, Els has an astounding 35 top-10 finishes at the majors in his career. And, dating back to 1992, there have been only four seasons (1995, 1998, 1999 and 2011) where Els hasn't placed inside the top 10 at at least one major. Talk about longevity. This week, he takes on a link-style course. He's fared well on those before, having won the 2002 and 2012 British Opens. But this is the U.S. Open, you say. It is. And he's won two of those before as well (1994, 1997). A win at a major would be a hell of a way to snap out of a slump, but this 45-year-old veteran could be just the man to do it.
4. Rickie Fowler
Best finish in 2014-15 season: Won the Players Championship
Reason to watch: How will Fowler follow up this major season compared to the one he had a year ago in which he was the only player in the world to record top-10 finishes in each of the four? Well, that's already out after a T12 at the Masters -- still a solid, solid week. But, if you were to tell Fowler he could have four top-10s at the majors in a season, or one top-10, specifically a win, he'd take the "W." He gained loads of confidence from those major performances in 2014. And, he comes into this week as the reigning Players Champion after a historic finish at TPC Sawgrass. Fowler, 26, is finally coming into his own. My crystal ball says there are major victories in his future.
3. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2014-15 season: Won the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship
Reason to watch: It feels a little dirty throwing the world's No. 1 player and winner of two of his last three starts on the PGA Tour in the No. 3 spot this week, but I have my reasons. Right after the Wells Fargo, McIlroy went back to Europe for the BMW PGA Championship and the Irish Open. Surely fatigued, it was still a surprise to see him miss the cut in both events. I'm chalking that up to an abberation. McIlroy will most certainly be a contender this week and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him claim his fifth major overall. I'm sure he's well-rested now, but there are two players who I think could be his biggest obstacles this week...
2. Jordan Spieth
Best finish in 2014-15 season: Won the Valspar Championship and the Masters
Reason to watch: I can't get enough of Spieth these days. He is just so rock solid. He's also the only player in this week's field who has a chance to claim the season's first two majors. The 21-year-old Masters champion seems to always find a way to be a contender come Sunday these days. At the Crowne Plaza Invitational near the end of May, Spieth closed with a 65 in the final round to tie for second. Seemingly not much of a factor a couple of week's later in the Memorial, Spieth fired another final-round 65 to tie for third. The guy is a stud.
1. Phil Mickelson
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T2 at the Masters
Reason to watch: I don't want Mickelson to win a U.S. Open. I need Mickelson to win a U.S. Open -- a tournament where he has painfully been a runner up on six occasions. If he wins this one tournament, the man we once badgered about when he'd win his first major, would suddenly have himself a career grand slam. In the Masters era, only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen have achieved the career grand slam. Outside of Woods, there is no player over the last 20 years with the sustained success of Mickelson. Golf doesn't owe anyone anything. But it sure feels like golf owes Mickelson a U.S. Open.