The U.S. Open: Top storylines and players to watch

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Sports,Golf,Kevin Dunleavy

Thursday-Friday » 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., 5 - 7 p.m., ESPN; 3 - 5 p.m., NBC Saturday-Sunday » 1:30 - 7:30 p.m., NBC

Storylines to watch

1The course » Since it was chosen, Merion Golf Club has been under scrutiny for its distance (its 6,996 yards make it the shortest major championship venue in a decade), its cramped quarters at 126 acre, and its ability to handle the infrastructure required to stage the Open. Players must rethink their practice routines because the driving range is located at Merion's West Course, requiring them to take two shuttles to reach the first tee, over a mile away. "It's going to be 20 or 30 minutes from the range to the time you tee off," Matt Kuchar said. "It will be a challenge for everybody."

2The rain » With predictions of violent thunderstorms, possibly accompanied by a derecho windstorm on Thursday, players and officials are bracing for the interruption of the first round and making contingency plans. Parts of Merion, specifically the low-lying 11th hole, are subject to flooding. From Friday to Wednesday, nearly six inches of rain had already fallen at Merion, softening the course and altering playing conditions. Players are dreading having to play mud balls, as the USGA rarely permits the lift-clean-place rules commonplace on the PGA Tour. "Mud balls are a problem," said Graeme McDowell. "I think they're unfair."

3 The favorite » Despite finishing 65th two weeks ago at the Memorial, Tiger Woods comes to Merion in fine form. He has regained his No. 1 ranking and won four PGA Tour events this year, his most in a season entering the U.S. Open since 2003. Stuck on 14 in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships, Woods has not won a major in five years. With a victory he would match Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Willie Anderson with four Open titles. Woods will tee off Thursday afternoon with world No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Adam Scott.

4 Great Scott » Masters champion Adam Scott will try to become just the second player in the last 41 years to win the first two legs of the grand slam. The other was Tiger Woods in 2002. Scott is worthy. In the last five majors, he is a combined 15-under-par. The closest player to him over that span is Woods at 2-over. At 32, the formerly underachieving Australian has blossomed and matured, taking on a limited schedule, modeled after those of Woods and Jack Nicklaus, and focusing on success in majors. Scott hasn't missed a cut in more than a year.

LAST YEAR

It's been 24 years since Curtis Strange became the last player to win consecutive U.S. Opens. This year Webb Simpson tries to match the feat. The 27-year-old from Wake Forest emerged last year at Olympic Club in San Francisco, rallying from a four-shot deficit with a final-round 68 to take the lead into the clubhouse, then watching his closest pursuers, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, falter. Simpson hasn't won a tournament over the past year but has finished in the top-10 in six events, including a playoff loss to McDowell in April at the Heritage on a short, tight course that resembles Merion. Unlike most in the field, Simpson has tournament experience at Merion, playing the 2005 U.S. Amateur.

FIT FOR A TITLE

Many Americans are primed to win their first major, some overdue, including Steve Stricker, who is still ranked No. 13 in the world despite cutting back his schedule. No. 4 Matt Kuchar and No. 7 Brandt Snedeker have the short games required for Open success. Others ready to win their first major include five Europeans -- No. 5 Justin Rose, No. 6 Luke Donald, No. 11 Lee Westwood, No. 15 Sergio Garcia and No. 17 Ian Poulter.

UNDER THE RADAR

Watch out for 20-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, who captured one of the most prized events on the European Tour, the BMW Championship, three weeks ago. American Billy Horschel, 26, has come of age, finishing in the top-10 in five of his last seven events. Merion's length will allow shorter hitters to compete including Tim Clark, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Jerry Kelly, K.J. Choi, David Toms and former Open champions Graeme McDowell (2010) and Jim Furyk (2003).

By the numbers

5 -- U.S. Opens hosted by Merion Golf Club, trailing only Oakmont (eight), Baltusrol (seven) and Oakland Hills (six).

5 -- Runner-up finishes at the Open by Phil Mickelson. They came at Bethpage (2009, 2002), Winged Foot (2006), Shinnecock (2004) and Pinehurst (1999).

$1,000 -- Prize money for winner Olin Dutra in the first Open played at Merion (1934). This year's winner will claim $1.26 million.

9,806 -- Players who entered this year's Open, the most in history by more than 800. The previous mark was in 2009 for the Open at Bethpage.

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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