Top 10 storylines for 2016 U.S. Open

By Michael Dixon

The 2016 U.S. Open is almost here. As always, we have plenty of things to keep an eye on. Still, when it comes to what we need to focus on at the beginning of the tournament before the leaderboard starts to shake out, some things take precedence.

With one day to go before things get underway at Oakmont, what are the top storylines to to keep our eyes on at the 2016 U.S. Open?

1. All eyes on Jordan Spieth

No golfer has won consecutive U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. If Spieth manages a win at Oakmont, he’ll add yet another accomplishment to his already impressive resume.

But Spieth being the defending champ won’t be the only reason that the eyes will be on him. In his last major, the former world No. 1 unleashed a collapse for the ages, preventing him from winning a second straight Masters.

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That Augusta frustration will always be a part of Spieth’s career. But if he goes on to win more majors, it becomes less significant, especially if he wins the next major. How often do we talk about Rory McIlroy’s collapse in the 2011 Masters? It’s mentioned, but since he won that year’s U.S. Open the Augusta blowup doesn’t seem that relevant anymore.

Likewise, a win from Spieth at Oakmont will go a long way in putting the 2016 Masters in everyone’s rear view mirrors.

2. Phil Mickelson’s quest for career grand slam

Lefty will turn 46 on Thursday, and realistically it’s hard to think that he can seriously contend in the U.S. Open for much longer. Still, unless he finally achieves a victory in his national championship, his quest for the career grand slam will remain one of the top storylines at every U.S. Open for at least a few more years.

The bad news is that Mickelson’s career at Oakmont is pretty underwhelming. He’s played in two U.S. Opens there, finishing in a tie for 47th in 1994 and missing the cut in 2007.

The good news for Mickelson is that he’s played some decent golf this year and is one of the hottest golfers heading into the weekend. Granted, the big lefty has missed four cuts this year, including the Masters, but he also has five top-10 finishes. That includes a second place finish in his most recent performance at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

3. Will someone win his first major?

History says that Oakmont will not be kind to Spieth, Mickelson, or anyone who’s already won a major.

A first-time major winner has emerged in six of the eight U.S. Opens that have previously been contested at Oakmont. Only Ben Hogan in 1953 and Larry Nelson in 1983 had previously won a major.

Whether the champion is a first-time major winner or not, history also says that the golfer who wins at Oakmont will have more major success. Seven of the eight men who won a U.S. Open at Oakmont went on to win at least one more major. That list includes 1962 champion Jack Nicklaus, who won his first of a record 18 majors at the Western Pennsylvania venue.

Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson lead a deep group of highly ranked stars looking to break through for the first time.

4. Can Danny Willett continue calendar slam

Much like the Preakness Stakes in the chase for the Triple Crown, the U.S. Open is the only tournament guaranteed to give us grand slam stakes. This year, the eyes fall on Masters champion Danny Willett.

Now, will it happen? Probably not. Only six men in history have backed up a win at Augusta with a U.S. Open victory. Even if Willett wins the U.S. Open this week, he’s still only halfway to the grand slam.

But while we understand the long odds, the chase for the grand slam is too historic to ignore. Any time it is possible, this quest should be one of the main things that people keep their eyes on.

5. How nasty will Oakmont be?

If you’re a fan of seeing the best golfers in the world struggle, then this U.S. Open will likely put a smile on your face.

After playing a practice round in May, Jordan Spieth said that he would “Sign for even par right now for 72 holes holes in June.”

Angel Cabrera won the last U.S. Open contested here in 2007 at five-over par. None of the subsequent eight have been won with a score that bad.

If that happens again, then it becomes a survival test, and really anything can happen. If it’s closer to even par (or better), then chances are that one of the world’s best will emerge victorious.

6. How will USGA respond to 2015 criticism?

The greens were a source of contention at Chambers Bay during 2015’s U.S. Open.

The USGA has traditionally been fairly reactionary. In the past, if a U.S. Open was won with a low score one year, one could put strong odds on the next year’s winning score being well over par.

This year, it’s the other way around. Though last year’s winning score was a completely reasonable five-under, the greens were not popular. So, will the USGA respond to the criticism by making the greens a little more manageable?

Anything’s possible, but don’t bet on it.

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7. Weather Report

Of course, the USGA may not be able to control  what the course conditions will look like 100 percent. The weather at Oakmont will likely have a lot to do with the scores as well.

Will it be windy? If so, Jordan Spieth said on Sunday that a score over par will win.

Will it rain? If so, the aforementioned greens will become a lot more approachable. Rainy conditions left a normally brutal Congressional defenseless in 2011. Overnight rains also certainly helped Johnny Miller shoot his final round 63 at Oakmont in 1973.

Will it be hot? If so, then the course will become dried out even more and even Cabrera’s winning score of five-over in 2007 may look like a pipe dream.

Western Pennsylvania can certainly offer a wide variety of weather options. What ends up happening this week will have a lot of impact in how tough the venue plays.

For what it’s worth, thunderstorms are on the forecast for Thursday, per weather.com, with early rains on Friday before a warm and sunny weekend sets in.

8. Will golf’s “Big Three” continue to dominate the majors?

Five of the last seven majors have been won by Rory McIlroy (2), Jordan Spieth (2), or Jason Day (1). In related news, those men currently currently occupy the top three spots in the World Golf Rankings, with plenty of room to spare.

Additionally, all three have not only won this year, but have recorded a victory since May 15. So, Day, Spieth, and McIlroy are not only the three best golfers in the world, but they’re three of the hottest.

None of the Big Three will be paired with each other in the opening two rounds. But if these trends hold, there’s a good chance that we’ll see at least two of them together over the weekend.

Really, who wouldn’t want to see that?

9. Olympic qualification

We’re used to majors having a big say in either Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup qualification. In this case, the qualifiers for the Ryder Cup run through the summer.

This year, we also have to keep an eye on Olympic qualification, which will cut off on July 11.

That makes the U.S. Open the last opportunity to make a big move in the world rankings, as the Open Championship will not get underway until after that deadline. So, for those who still have hopes on playing in Rio this summer, this U.S. Open will be extra important.

10. Whose short game is on?

Putting the ball in play will be important. Likewise, it will be hard for anyone not putting well to compete. But according to 2010 U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell, what happens around the greens will be most vital.

What does that mean?

Well, the scores in the early round may not be that important. Someone may go out and have a great round on Thursday or Friday, but that won’t necessarily translate.

It will be important to keep an eye on the guys who are playing well around the green. Who seems most capable of scrambling from the unforgiving greens? It may not be a player who’s leading after a relatively smooth opening round.