Phil Mickelson speaks with the media during a practice round...

Phil Mickelson speaks with the media during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. (June 12, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

STORY LINES

1 So, is this the next one? Tiger Woods is coming off a win at Memorial, but he is also coming off a four-year drought in the majors.

2 The marquee group. The U.S. Golf Association pointed out that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were paired in the opening round 50 years ago, in what became Nicklaus' first major win. Still, it will be fresh fun to see the dynamic among Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

3 Rory McIlroy's defense. He won the 2011 U.S. Open in a walk. Is he ready for a run at another major?

4 The course. Last year, Congressional was soft, more figuratively than literally. There wasn't that much rain, but the course played easy. There is no forecast for rain, so maybe Olympic will be hard, literally and figuratively.

5 The field. Each of the past 14 majors has been won by a different golfer. Is that a sign of parity or a dearth of dominance? Maybe it's time for a repeat winner.

ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID

Rating Phil Mickelson's second-place finishes (including ties) at the U.S. Open, in terms of how heartbreaking they were:

1 2006, Winged Foot, when he said, "I am such an idiot." He admitted this week this one still hurts the most because his short game was the best it ever had been.

2 1999, Pinehurst. He had to stand there and watch Payne Stewart make the final putt (Stewart's reminder, "You're going to be a father!" was only slight consolation).

3 2004, Shinnecock. He was on the verge of back-to-back majors before a bogey on No. 17.

4 2009, Bethpage. Would've been an all-time great story, given he was coming off a break to tend to his wife, Amy, after her diagnosis of breast cancer.

5 2002, Bethpage. Not so heartbreaking. Tiger Woods was a clear winner, and the Long Island crowd adopted Mickelson, serenading him with "Happy Birthday."

OTHER CONTENDERS

1 Zach Johnson. Major champion, won at Colonial and tied for second at The Players, despite having to endure playing with the very slow Kevin Na.

2 Matt Kuchar. Tied for 14th in his first Open, at Olympic 14 years ago, and in his last Open, last year. Plus, he was momentarily at the top in the Masters this year.

3 Jim Furyk. Maybe one last shot to build

on that one Open win, nine years ago.

4 Luke Donald. Maybe one last shot to prove world rankings aren't totally irrelevant (he's No. 1).

5 Alvaro Quiros. What the heck. He made a 1 on the par-4 seventh hole in practice Wednesday, saying, "You need to have luck to play good golf, I think."

BY THE NUMBERS

2 Countries visited every day for six years by Open qualifier Alberto Sanchez, 17, who lived in Arizona but crossed the border to Mexico, his father's native country, for school because his dad wanted him to experience that culture

26 Consecutive years that tickets to the Open have sold out

670 Yards, the measurement of Olympic's 16th hole, the longest in Open history

17 Times Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have played in the same U.S. Open. Before today, they played the first round together only once (2008)

4 Club pros in the field of 156

3 Hours of sleep for James Hahn between winning a Nationwide Tour event in Raleigh, N.C., and qualifying for the Open in Northern California 27 hours later last week

21 Years after he lost a lead to Woods in the U.S. Amateur, 38-year-old Tommy Biershenk finally qualified for his first U.S. Open. Woods' advice to him on playing in the Open? "Be patient." As if Biershenk hasn't been patient enough.

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