Five things to watch for at the U.S. Open

Fourteen-year-old Andy Zhang, of China, tees off on the first hole during a practice round for the...

Fourteen-year-old Andy Zhang, of China, tees off on the first hole during a practice round for the 2012 U.S. Open golf tournament. (REUTERS)

KIRK PENTON, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 3:47 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO - Ten years ago the question was: How easily will Tiger Woods win this tournament?

A couple of years ago the question was: Who will win now that Tiger is out of the picture?

Now it's anyone's ball game, Woods included. Here are five intriguing storylines to follow when the action begins Thursday morning at The Olympic Club:

1. How will Woods do? That question is on the tip of everyone's tongue this week in the City by the Bay. Is he back? Does he need to win a major to be back? How's his back? If it's back-related, then it's about Woods. He is coming off his second victory of the year, at the Memorial Tournament, and he appears to have his mojo back. But is he playing consistently enough to snap a four-year major drought? That's the big question for which no one has an answer.

2. How will the teenager do? Andy Zhang is 14 years old. He should be going to the mall with his friends, but instead he's going to the first tee Thursday morning with Hiroyuki Fujita and Mark Wilson. While the six-footer has the build of an average adult, weighs 174 pounds (he weighs himself daily) and smacks the ball 285 yards off the tee, there's no way he can be mentally prepared for something as big as this. If he makes the cut, it will be one of the best performances of the week.

3. Will someone win his first major? It's the cool thing to do these days, as 11 of the past 13 major winners did so for the first time. Luke Donald is ranked No. 1 in the world and is still looking for that elusive title, but this course might be too much for him. Lee Westwood is No. 3 and our choice for best player never to have won a major. Maybe it's time for him. As for the American contingent, is Hunter Mahan finally poised to put it all together?

4. Can McIlroy repeat? The short answer would appear to be no. The young gun can bomb the ball, there's no doubt. But can he put it where he wants to? Rory McIlroy is in a slump right now, although he did contend at the St. Jude Classic last weekend before disaster struck on the final hole. He won his first major last year, but now the honeymoon is over. He knows he's good enough to win, and it looks as if he's putting pressure on himself to do so. It wasn't like that last year when he was a carefree 22-year-old. Welcome to adulthood, Rory.

5. Will Watson keep it going? Bubba Watson won the Masters with some sort of hook-draw-pull combination on the first playoff hole that defied the odds. Shots need to be shaped at Olympic and the course is 7,100 yards, so maybe the long-bombing Watson has the tools to win his second consecutive major. Then again, it was clear during his press conference Tuesday that he's not a big fan of some of Olympic's holes. It just doesn't feel like it will be Bubba's week.


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