ADAM Scott faces his first major since becoming golf's world No.1 while Phil Mickelson tries to complete a career grand slam when the US Open starts on Thursday.
Tiger Woods will miss his second major in a row after back surgery, with the 14-time major champion helpless to stop his major win drought extending beyond the six years since his 2008 US Open triumph.
In his place at Pinehurst are a host of in-form contenders, including Scott, who won in his first event as world No.1 at Colonial in Texas, Bubba Watson still humming from his second Masters triumph and Rory McIlroy coming off a recent victory at the European PGA Championship.
Pinehurst will offer a formidable test with lightning-quick greens featuring minimal safe landing areas, making accuracy a must.
The usual US Open rough will be replaced with natural scrub brush, pinestraw and wire grass to offer hazards for those whose balls roll off wider fairways that also will play firm and fast.
Scott feels he's rolling in the right direction though the US Open has proven the most difficult major for him with no top-10 finishes in his 12 attempts.
"I'm playing really well," said Scott. "I think I've got good momentum going into the major, absolutely.
"I've just brought my game exactly where I want it to be. I've contended the past few weeks.
"Hopefully I can do the same thing at Pinehurst and can use some fresh experience to get me over the line."
Reigning British Open champion Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion who also won the 2005 PGA Championship, has a record six runner-up finishes at US Opens, including a 1999 second at Pinehurst behind the late Payne Stewart.
"Of the three other majors outside of the Masters, yeah, my record is the best at the US Open. I've played my best golf there," Mickelson said.
Mickelson will also have the distraction of being the subject of an FBI investigation into insider stock trading that also involves investor Carl Icahn and gambler Billy Walters.
"I have done absolutely nothing wrong," Mickelson said.
While Mickelson elected to play the PGA event at Memphis the week before the US Open, Masters champion Watson took a rest week before his first trip to Pinehurst after a third-place Memorial effort.
"Obviously I'm looking forward to it," Watson said. "The ball-striking is all right. My all-around game is getting better, getting more consistent. That's always exciting going forward."
McIlroy shook off his very public break up with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki to win the European PGA and boosted his confidence as he aims for a second US Open win and third major title.
"I think it was very important," he said. "I showed quite a lot of mental strength or focus and when I really needed to play well and hole some putts and get it up-and-down, I was able to do it," he said. "It gave me a lot of confidence.
"The fairways are going to be a little more generous than they usually are at a US Open and it will encourage guys to get driver in their hand. You can be aggressive off the tee, which I like."
Australian Jason Day, a two-time US Open runner-up, is also in the hunt though he lacks recent form following time out with a thumb injury since the Masters.
"I feel like I'll win a major," he said. "I've just got to pay my dues and really keep working hard and hopefully I'll get a few."
And don't count out defending champion Justin Rose, although the Englishman's first major title came at Merion, not Pinehurst.
"The US Open test suits my game. I like to play the tough courses," Rose said. "I've got all the shots. It's just a matter of putting them all together."
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