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The big draws in San Francisco this week

ESPN staff
June 13, 2012
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion © Getty Images
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The 112th US Open begins at Olympic Club on Thursday, with a high quality field battling to succeed Rory McIlroy as the champion.

Some players come in expecting to contend, while others are simply happy to enjoy the experience. Ahead of the first tee-time, we identify a few players to watch:

Rory McIlroy

The defending champion this week, McIlroy comes into the tournament following some mixed results - ending a three-tournament missed cut streak at the St Jude Classic, but then blowing a pretty good chance to win over the weekend.

The Olympic Club course does not appear to suit the Northern Irishman as much as Congressional did 12 months ago, but he showed during that eight-shot victory that he is simply too good for anyone - even perhaps Tiger - when everything is firing on all-cylinders.

The question, then, is whether McIlroy will be able to bring his 'A' game - especially with the additional pressure and scrutiny that comes with being the defending champion. Not since 1989 (Curtis Strange) has a man retained his US Open title; McIlroy has a good chance, but he will need to show significantly better form than he has recently.

Casey Martin

If you have not got a big name to support this week, then throw your weight behind 40-year-old Casey Martin. Fourteen years ago in the same tournament at the same venue, Martin became the first player to play in a US Open while using a golf buggy, due to a rare circulatory disorder in his right leg.

A protracted legal case won him the right to play on that occasion (the rules of golf usually ask players to walk unaided during competitive rounds) but the problem has kept Martin, now a college coach, from playing regular professional golf in recent times. The timing and location of this year's event allowed him to have a go at qualifying once again, however - and here he is.

"I would like to make the cut, I would like to get paid," Martin joked earlier this week. "Obviously there's a lot of money in this tournament and that would be fun. But with that aside, I'm just going to go out there and just compete.

"I don't get to compete much, so I've gone from basically nothing to the pinnacle of golf which is a lot to take in emotionally and mentally. I'm just going to take whatever I get and consider this a great experience."

Tiger Woods

Back in the US Open after missing out last year due to injury, Woods bids to win his first major since 2008 and resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' major record.

Woods is coming off a victory at Memorial in his last appearance, where his long game certainly seemed to be under far better control than it has for months, even years. His putting is still a question mark and the course setup would not appear to play into his hands, but you discount Tiger Woods at your peril.

Ryo Ishikawa

Ishikawa, on a media interest basis, almost rivals Tiger for popularity - he is followed by so many members of the Japanese media that he has a special chair for his post-round interviews.

He is also a great golfer, though (although he hasn't entirely lived up to expectations), and has a decent enough record in two previous appearances at the US Open. He could just surprise a few people this week.

Rickie Fowler

The real deal after a PGA Tour victory earlier this season, Fowler hits a mild fade but can turn the ball over when necessary - perfect for the course the players will navigate this week.

One of the most popular young players in the game today, a win for Fowler is the sort of follow-up to McIlroy that the USGA dreams about.

Bubba Watson will be in the spotlight this week © Getty Images
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Bubba Watson

The only man who can still win the grand slam this year - let's get that out of the way early. Watson was a hugely popular winner at The Masters and has become an overnight celebrity in the US - with his idiosyncratic ways endearing him to a wide range of fans.

His golf, however, has taken a back seat for different reasons since Augusta - as he has skipped a number of tournaments to bond with his newly adopted son, Caleb. Back in the spotlight, considering the course should not suit his swashbuckling ways it will be interesting to see how the sometimes combustible left-hander will cope with everything.

Andy Zhang

Gaining entry to the field after the withdrawal of Paul Casey through injury, Zhang would be unremarkable if not for his age - Zhang is just 14.

Having missed out in a play-off to qualify for the tournament outright, Zhang was one of the lucky alternates to profit from others' misfortune. Having played a practice round with Bubba Watson on Tuesday he appears to have slotted seamlessly into the major championship bubble, and it will be interesting to see how he fares when the tournament gets underway on Thursday.

Tiger Woods, after all, never qualified for a major at such an age, yet he sees no reason why Zhang cannot fare well. "These kids are now bringing out iPads to the range and watching their swing and breaking it down on the [video analysis software]," he said. "I saw a few of these kids over in Korea who have only been playing the game for a year. And six months of it was all indoors hitting golf balls. All they did was put the club in the correct position to hit balls, hit balls, hit balls, and that's it.

"They come out and they have perfect golf swings. That's the new generation. The swings are all going to look very similar, and all these kids are going to have power."

Zhang, then, may just be a precursor of talent to come. If you are good enough, you're old enough.

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