2014 U.S. Open | Five players to watch

Rory McIlroy
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Rory McIlroy is already a two-time major champion. Will he pick up his second U.S. Open win this week at Pinehurst No. 2?
By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, June 11, 2014 | 8:00 a.m.

There's no other golf tournament in the world where mistakes are penalized as badly as they are in a U.S. Open.

In a U.S. Open, par is a player's friend and you don't always mind hanging out with bogey. Most importantly, one needs to avoid the big mistakes. Take your medicine, as they say, get the ball back in play and get out of there with as little damage to your scorecard as possible.

This week's test will be one of the toughest, with the best players in the world descending on historic Pinehurst No. 2. Unlike most U.S. Opens, there will be virtually no rough to speak of this week. However, that won't make this Donald Ross design (revamped recently by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore) any easier to navigate.

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This is the third time a U.S. Open will be contested at Pinehurst No. 2. Here are five players you'll want to look out for.

5. Webb Simpson
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
Reason to watch: Hard to believe, but this will mark just the 10th start in a major championship for Simpson. His previous nine have yielded one top-10 finish -- that famously came in the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. OK, so we know he has the game to handle U.S. Open conditions. I also like this about Simpson: he's coming off a strong showing on Sunday (T3 in Memphis) and this championship is being played in his home state of North Carolina. He's confident and motivated.

4. Adam Scott
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial
Reason to watch: Here's a little fun fact about the world's No. 1-ranked player that you may not know and he'd probably prefer to not be reminded about -- he's never once finished inside the top 10 at a U.S. Open. In fact, it's the only major championship in which he hasn't finished in the top 3 at some point. Why do I like him this week then? For starters, some have compared Pinehurst No. 2 to Australia's Royal Melbourne, one of Scott's favorite places in the world. Also, this is his first major since becoming world No. 1. We saw what he did at Colonial in his first start as world No. 1. Scott doesn't make many big mistakes and that will serve him well at Pinehurst.

3. Sergio Garcia
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Third at the Shell Houston Open and the Players Championship
Reason to watch: Garcia tied for third at Pinehurst in the 2005 U.S. Open. He's the only player in this week's field to boast a top-10 finish the last time the national championship was held at Pinehurst No. 2. It's pretty well documented that Garcia has yet to capture that elusive major. As arguably the best driver in the game and a fantastic ball-striker, there's no reason to think Garcia can't finally pick up major win No. 1 this week... unless his putter acts up. The way he's played on the PGA Tour this season, though -- five top 10s in eight starts -- you'd have to think he's as ready for a major win as ever before. His game and his mind are in a nice spot.

2. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Third at the Shell Houston Open and the Players Championship
Reason to watch: Three weeks ago, McIlroy may not have made this list. He's got a lot going on off the course. However, he's used the golf course as his refuge from that off-the-course stuff and just a few weeks ago he was able to capture the European Tour's biggest event in the BMW PGA Championship. He's got two majors under his belt, including the 2011 U.S. Open. In each of his nine PGA Tour starts this season, McIlroy has finished inside the top 25. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour in 2014. But, I really like where his game is at heading to Pinehurst and I know he's hungry for another major win.

1. Phil Mickelson
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
T11 at the Wells Fargo Championship and the FedEx St. Jude Classic
Reason to watch: In the pantheon of all-time great sports stories, a Phil Mickelson victory at Pinehurst No. 2 this week would have to rank right up there. No player in the history of the game has finished runner up in the U.S. Open more often than Mickelson (six times). The first of those six came at Pinehurst 15 years ago when he was edged by Payne Stewart. If Mickelson were to win this week, he finally gets past all those prior missteps and -- the cherry on top -- he'd complete the career grand slam. Oddly -- by his high standards -- this has been far from a great season so far for Mickelson. However, he is the type of player who can snap out of a slump at any time. While every major win is nice, I've got to believe there's no major venue Mickelson would like to win at more than this U.S. Open at Pinehurst. 

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.