1 behind the scenes moment from 10 golfers who could win the U.S. Open

scottie scheffler and brooks koepka smile at the u.s. open separated by an arrow

Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka profile as two of the U.S. Open's biggest favorites.

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PINEHURST, N.C. — Jack Nicklaus used to say he’d hear a player complain about U.S. Open conditions and smile.

It meant he had one fewer player to beat.

Shortly after winning the 1974 U.S. Open with a score of 7-over par, Hale Irwin agreed.

“The pall was so thick in the locker room after Monday and Tuesday, you could have cut it with a knife,” said Irwin, who would go on to become a three-time U.S. Open champ. “I concluded that 70 percent of the field had checked out.”

And in 2019, another multiple-time U.S. Open winner, Brooks Koepka, shared some similar calculus.

“There’s 156 [players] in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” he said. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just — pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”

The conceit here is simple: The U.S. Open may have one of pro golf’s biggest tee sheets, but it has one of golf’s smallest fields. One-hundred and fifty-six players will compete this week, but only somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 players stand a chance of winning.

So, who are they? And what have we learned from them during the first three days at Pinehurst No. 2? Yours truly has spent the past few days collecting information from every nook and cranny of the Carolina Sandhills on the guys who could win, and here’s a small nugget on 10 of them.

1 nugget from 10 U.S. Open contenders

1. Scottie Scheffler

The talk of Scottie Scheffler at Pinehurst is perhaps best defined by those other than Scottie Scheffler.

Talk with anyone at Pinehurst — players, caddies, agents, broadcasters, fans — and the first words out of their mouth will be about Scheffler’s dominance. Everybody’s talking about it, even if not everybody wishes to acknowledge it. (Jon Rahm’s answer to me when asked if he felt pressure added by Scheffler’s dominance ran two letters in length: “No.”)

The consensus seems that another win for Scheffler this week could push him further into rarefied levels of golf superstardom — levels perhaps not reached since early career Rory McIlroy. Interestingly, everyone also seems to agree that, in a vacuum, those levels of superstardom are a good thing for golf (even if those levels of superstardom theoretically come to the detriment of his fellow players). Scheffler winning is good for business, and golf could use some more of that.

2. Xander Schauffele

Xander Schauffele was clearly compartmentalizing as best as he could during PGA Championship week. The tournament was a “big event,” not a major, and his performance throughout each round was qualified as “Only [insert day of the week].”

As we all know, that strategy paid off. So I was surprised to see things looking slightly different this week.

After a life-changing (and monkey-on-his-back-removing) win in Louisville, Schauffele has a palpable swagger at Pinehurst. He looks less tense walking through the fairways, and his game is reflecting it. On three straight holes during Wednesday afternoon’s practice round, Schauffele flagged approach shots within 20 feet while the remainder of his group missed the putting surface altogether.

There’s an old theory about players breaking through at the majors in bunches (Phil did it most famously in the early 2000s), and watching Schauffele’s change of demeanor this week has me wondering if we’re on the brink of a second.

3. Rory McIlroy

If you ignore the tabloids, it’s been a quiet week for Rory McIlroy.

The four-time major winner has opted to practice largely in solitude at Pinehurst, going away from his typical slate of star-studded major championship practice pairings in favor of solo jaunts. He’s kept a low profile while doing so, keeping largely to himself, caddie Harry Diamond and putting coach/NBC analyst Brad Faxon. Golf-wise, he’s looked awesome, roasting tight draws and chasing tucked pins with jaw-dropping ease. His swing looks as grooved and comfortable as ever.

But it’s hard for anyone to avoid the tabloids this week. On Tuesday evening, The Guardian reported that McIlroy and his wife, Erica, had called off their divorce just four weeks after the former filed. While it is certainly Rory’s right to have his personal life remain private, each of McIlroy’s past two major starts has come under the specter of freshly announced divorce proceedings. That’s difficult for anyone, even the third-best player in the world, to have going on in the background.

4. Tiger Woods

OK, we hear you. Tiger is a U.S. Open long shot, and this is supposed to be a story about U.S. Open contenders. But it’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than a few cruddy major finishes for us to pull Tiger off the list of potential winners — especially when the conditions (flat) and weather (humid) are as favorable as this week looks. Woods has looked sharp through the first few days of this week, and his practice sessions have revealed a lot about how he’s feeling.

Tiger broke out an oldie but a goodie on the practice range on Wednesday afternoon, working on the “exit left” drill with longtime manager/pal Rob McNamara. In the drill, McNamara held the butt-end of a 7-iron at roughly belt-buckle height above Woods’ hands, while Tiger focused on keeping his hands away from the outstretched club through the downswing. The drill, which dates back to the Butch Harmon days, aims to keep Tiger hitting controllable, consistent fades — and aims to rid Tiger of the kind of double-cross miss we’ve seen a few times this major championship season.

It should come as no surprise to learn the drill focuses on Tiger’s surgically repaired spine, aiming to keep its angle consistent through the swing. When those building blocks hold together, the shot shape usually does, too.

5. Bryson DeChambeau

Bryson looked like a changed man at the PGA Championship, and not only because of the crowd’s newfound adulation. That change of tenor seems to have carried over to U.S. Open week, where Bryson entered one of the field’s heavy favorites — and few former U.S. Open champs. So I asked him why.

“What I will say is I have changed, definitely, in different ways. I still feel like I’m that same kid that came out here right at the start, but I feel like as a person I’m just different to interact with,” he said. ” My dad passing gave me a great perspective on life. Just everything in general has changed. They say every five years somebody’s life changes and it couldn’t be more true. I’m a completely different person than I was back at Winged Foot. There’s remnants. I’ve still got a lot of the same cells, but I’m definitely different in the brain for sure.”

A very Bryson answer. A very telling one, too.

6. Max Homa

The hidden gem at Pinehurst No. 2 through three days? The short-game area, located on the far side of the practice green, where the crowds are few and the sorcery is mind-boggling.

The famed turtleback greens at Pinehurst No. 2 have brought out all kinds of weird short-game shots from the best golfers in the world, from the low-iron bump-and-run to the three-yard spinner. A few months ago, Max Homa spoke glowingly about witnessing Tiger Woods hit these kinds of shots up close at Augusta National, and on Wednesday afternoon I found him and Tiger enjoying a short-game session within spitting distance of one another at the practice area.

Short game will be nothing short of essential at Pinehurst, where the greens reject golf balls like raindrops on a windshield. Fortunately, Homa has managed these kinds of bleeding-edge decisions before. He played four brilliant rounds at the Masters in April and came up just short of Scheffler’s eventual coronation after a few testy wedge shots on No. 12 at Augusta National broke the wrong way.

In all likelihood, a winning score on Sunday afternoon will demand a few good bounces on testy wedge shots, so I wondered how many clubs Homa is planning to use around the greens. He laughed.

“I think only four,” he said. “Sand wedge, lob wedge, 5-iron and putter.”

I laughed too. Only four.

Max Homa pinehurst no. 2
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7. Brooks Koepka

Brooks Koepka looked mildly frustrated on the range for a few minutes on Wednesday afternoon. He was holding a driver and working with instructor Claude Harmon III on a specific cut-shot swing feel.

Koepka has described before how important the fade is to his game, and as swing after swing went out into the ether, it was clear that he wasn’t getting exactly the shot shape he was looking for.

Finally, Harmon tweaked something in Koepka’s backswing and it clicked. He sent a ball into the atmosphere in a hurry, curving around the trees at the center of the driving range through a pocket of air so perfectly placed you might have thought it was an accident.

It wasn’t.

Brooks handed his driver back to caddie Ricky Elliot before his ball returned to earth and moved on to a different club. The tune-up was progressing.

8. Viktor Hovland

Hovland famously said he was debating the merits of dropping out of the PGA Championship altogether last month when he re-hired coach Joe Mayo and immediately finished in solo third place.

A month has passed since that event, and it’s safe to say that most of us assumed the “old” Viktor Hovland was back. That’s not quite the case.

He said on Tuesday that he was able to find a “feel” during his practice round on Monday, but admitted he’d “ideally” prefer to know his swing feels well in advance of a tournament week.

“It hasn’t been quite as good as I’d like to,” Hovland said. “I’m curious to see what happens when I go out there and play today and the next couple days, kind of see how that works.”

That makes two of us.

9. Collin Morikawa

“I still don’t feel like there’s a target on my back,” Scottie Scheffler said on Tuesday afternoon.

Clearly he hasn’t spoken to Collin Morikawa, who may have three or four wins this season if not for Scheffler’s brilliance.

Morikawa has been arguably the best golfer not named Scheffler or Schauffele since the start of 2024, and yet he has zero wins to show for it. The funny thing about Morikawa, though, is that a win this weekend would put him three-quarters of the way to the grand slam.

It’s not as sexy as a Scottie win in the public eye right now, but it’s every bit as plausible — and perhaps as legacy-shifting.

10. Ludvig Aberg

Ludvig Aberg has cooled off some since an electric start to the season resulted in a second-place Masters finish. He’s also dealt with a mysterious knee injury that forced a WD. But he poured in a 25-footer for birdie on the 17th during Wednesday’s practice round, mashed a handful of truly terrifying golf shots, and profiles as the kind of high-ball hitter who will thrive once the greens at Pinehurst harden up heading into the weekend.

But that’s just his golf profile. I’m most impressed by his outlook on life and golf, which can be best surmised with the kind of shrug he so often throws caddie Joe Skovron’s way. As Skovron told me earlier this year, “he’s mature beyond his years.” Winning a U.S. Open demands it.

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at james.colgan@golf.com.

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