The season's second major championship -- the U.S. Open -- is upon us this week at Oakmont Country Club just outside Pittsburgh, Pa.
This week will mark the ninth time that Oakmont has hosted the U.S. Open, which is more than any other venue in the country. It has also hosted three PGA Championships, five U.S. Amateurs, three NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championships, and two U.S. Women's Opens.
The challenges at Oakmont are endless, but it might be most well-known for its thick, relentless rough.
As difficult as Oakmont is, it's surprisingly also the site of the U.S. Open's record-low score. That would be the 8-under 63 that Johnny Miller fired in the final round in 1973 on his way to winning that year (the score was later matched by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf in 1980 at Baltusrol and then again by Vijay Singh in 2003 at Olympia Fields).
So what can we expect this week? As with any U.S. Open, there's no question that "par" will be a player's best friend.
With that, here's a look at the six pairings you'll want to watch for the first two rounds:
6. Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Angel Cabrera
Tee times: 1:58 p.m., Hole 1 on Thursday; 8:13 a.m., Hole 10 on Friday
Reason to watch: This is a fun group that possesses four U.S. Open championships between them, including the one Cabrera captured in 2007 -- the last time the U.S. Open was played at Oakmont. Els won his first major -- the 1994 U.S. Open -- at Oakmont and Furyk, the area's native son, tied for second with Tiger Woods in 2007, one shot behind Cabrera. Though all three players are reaching the later stages of their respective PGA Tour careers, would it surprise anyone if one of them -- or heck, even all three -- were on page one of the leaderboard late Sunday? Experience counts for a lot in majors and you'd be hard-pressed to find three more experienced world-class players than this trio.
5. Hideki Matsuyama, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson
Tee times: 1:36 p.m., Hole 1 on Thursday; 7:51 a.m., Hole 10 on Friday
Reason to watch: The threesome of, "guys who haven't, but could," win a major at anytime right here. In just 13 major starts, the 24-year-old Matsuyama -- a two-time PGA Tour winner -- has already racked up five top-10 finishes. And we're all familiar with the plight of both Garcia and Johnson when it comes to majors, but we'll drive it home here. For Garcia: an astounding 20 top-10 finishes in the four big ones (he missed the cut at Oakmont in 2007). And for Johnson: 11 majors in the top 10, including that gut-wrenching runner-up finish a year ago at Chambers Bay when a short putt on the final hole cost him a spot in an 18-hole Monday playoff with Jordan Spieth. A win for Matsuyama would give him elite status among the game's young guns. A win for Garcia or Johnson would be a signature moment on what have already been stellar careers.
4. Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson
Tee times: 2:09 p.m., Hole 10 on Thursday; 8:24 a.m., Hole 1 on Friday
Reason to watch: This pairing includes the man who has more U.S. heartbreak than anyone in Mickelson; the 2013 champ at Merion (also in Pennsylvania) in Rose; and arguably the best player never to win a major in Stenson. The U.S. Open -- where he's been runner up on six occasions -- is the lone major that eludes Mickelson in his quest for a career grand slam. He hasn't won on Tour since claiming the 2013 Open Championship, but comes into this week following a runner-up finish in Memphis. Rose, meanwhile, seems to be trending toward another big hit in the majors, evidenced by the fact that he has finished outside the top 10 just once in his last five major starts. As for Stenson, his is a name that always seems to be on page one of major championship leaderboards. He just hasn't been able to get it done... yet.
3. Rory McIlroy, Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler
Tee times: 8:24 a.m., Hole 1 on Thursday; 2:09 p.m., Hole 10 on Friday
Reason to watch: A comfortable pairing here... which could be bad news for the rest of the field. McIlroy is looking for major win No. 5; Willett is the reigning Masters champ; and Fowler is just a year and a half removed from a season in which he finished inside the top 5 at all four majors. McIlroy and Willett will be Ryder Cup teammates in September. Fowler and McIlroy are buds. Anything that can ease the tension just a touch in a tournament like the U.S. Open is a huge positive. And with all three players playing well this season, there's a good chance we'll see them feeding off one another. While most eyes will be on McIlroy and Fowler in this pairing, Willett might be the most compelling of the three. How will he perform in his first major start since becoming a major champion?
2. Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott
Tee times: 2:20 p.m., Hole 1 on Thursday; 8:35 a.m., Hole 10 on Friday
Reason to watch: I absolutely love this pairing. Remember not all that long ago when world No. 1. Jason Day couldn't close? Does anyone question his ability to close now? Six of his 10 PGA Tour wins have come since winning the PGA Championship last August -- less than a year ago -- including three this season. That'll work. It's hard to imagine a player overpowering Oakmont. If anyone can though, it's Day. Oosthuizen and Scott -- also major winners and frequent major contenders -- would love to add a U.S. Open victory to their already impressive resumes.
1. Zach Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth
Tee times: 8:35 a.m., Hole 10 on Thursday; 2:20 p.m., Hole 1 on Friday
Reason to watch: Pretty outstanding that we don't have to wait long on Thursday to see this trio. Johnson, the reigning Open Champion, paired with golf's man of mystery in DeChambeau and the defending U.S. Open champ in Spieth. Will Oakmont's length prove too much for Johnson, who finished T45 there in 2007 just a couple months after winning the Masters? Not if he keeps it in play. He's as deadly with the wedges as they come. DeChambeau had a spot in the U.S. Open as the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, gave it up when he turned pro and then went out and qualified the hard way to earn his spot back. Impressive stuff. There haven't been many young players over the years who come out on to the tour and ooze the confidence and carry the swagger we're seeing with DeChambeau. And then, of course, there's Spieth. He has told anyone who will listen that he's over that meltdown that happened in the final round of the Masters on the par-3 12th hole, where he let slip away a major that was his to win. Outside of the majors the tournament at Colonial is closest to Spieth's heart since it's a home game in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He won that a few weeks ago. Riding high on confidence, the 22-year-old Spieth (just 22? Can you believe that?) is looking for another major triumph. Did you know: in just 12 major starts Spieth has finished in the top 2 on five occasions? That's a "wow" stat.