2014 Open Championship | Five players to watch

Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson
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Rickie Fowler has finished in the top 5 of each of the first two majors this year. Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, is the defending champ at the Open Championship this week.
By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | 9:56 a.m.

It's hard to believe, but we've already reached the third leg of the major championship season as the Open Championship tees off at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, on Thursday.

As always, there will be plenty to watch for, including the return of Tiger Woods who will be playing in his first major of the year after back surgery in March. While we probably shouldn't expect much from Woods with only two competitive rounds (the Quicken Loans National) under his belt in four months, keep in mind he did win the Open at this very venue in 2006.

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Then there's also the odd case of Phil Mickelson. He's the defending Open champion, but has yet to record a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in the 2013-14 season. Is this the week he snaps out of the funk?

While Tiger and Phil would make for great stories with a victory, here are five others you might want to keep an eye on.

5. Rickie Fowler
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
T2 at the U.S. Open
Reason to watch: For the first time in his career, Fowler enters the Open Championship having finished in the top 5 at each of the season's first two majors. He tied for fifth at the Masters and tied for second at the U.S. Open. He also had a top-5 finish at the Open in 2010 (T5) and just last week at Royal Aberdeen in the Scottish Open -- on a links-style course -- he tied for eighth. Good form and he's on a roll in the majors.

4. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Playoff loss at the Honda Classic
Reason to watch: Rory has been plagued by a case of the Fridays this year. After some fantastic opening rounds, McIlroy can't seem to follow it up with a solid Friday score. That's truly the only thing holding him back. He did break through in May though at the European Tour's flagship event -- the BMW PGA Championship. Can he find the magic this week? Outside of a tie for third in 2010, the Open Championship has proven to be a struggle for McIlroy, which is surprising given that he grew up playing tons of links golf. Something's got to give for McIlroy with these disappointing second rounds. This might be the week.

3. Adam Scott
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial
Reason to watch: Since 2011, the 2013 Masters Champion has been a top-10 machine in the majors. Eight top 10s in 14 tries over that stretch, including a runner-up finish and a tie for third in each of the last two Open Championships. He's the No. 1 player in the world now. Scott is always giving himself a chance to win these days, which is exactly what you'd expect from the No. 1 player in the world. He does have demons in the Open Championship. He'd be the first to admit he probably should have won the last two of them. Perhaps the third time being in a great position to win in as many years is a charm.

2. Graeme McDowell
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Third at the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: When I think of elite players who get the most out of their respective games, the names Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell are at the very top of that list. That's a big-time compliment. Obviously they're supremely talented players, but they also have that intangible that not everyone has -- they grind it out to the very last putt. Sure, a lot of top players do that. That's why they're the best. With Johnson and McDowell though, we're not talking about the longest hitters in the game. They truly dissect a course and play to their strengths (Johnson, for instance, laying up on the par 5s at Augusta National all week on his way to winning the 2007 Masters). Because of this, I always love McDowell's chances on a hard golf course. I also like that he's coming in having won in France just two weeks ago, overcoming an eight-shot deficit in the final round with a 67 (and a lot of help from 54-hole leader Kevin Stadler).

1. Justin Rose
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Won the Quicken Loans National
Reason to watch: Rose's lone top 10 finish in the Open Championship came in 1998 at Royal Birkdale when he tied for fourth... as an amateur at the age of 17. Rose fell on some hard times after that impressive showing, but over the last several years he's developed into one of the top talents in the world. And, as it turns out, there's no player hotter than Rose heading into this Open. For the first time in his career, Rose has been victorious in consecutive starts -- first at the Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour and then again last week at the Scottish Open on the European Tour. Both of those came on ridiculously difficult courses. That bodes well for this week. Pulling a hat-trick won't be easy, but Rose has got to love the way he's playing going into the tournament he covets most. 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.