U.S. Open storylines: Can Xander Schauffele (or anyone else) top Scottie Scheffler?

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Talk about a stark contrast.

After the PGA Championship presented the best golfers in the world with an execution test at Valhalla Country Club that featured a winning score of 21-under (the lowest ever in major championship history), the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 provides something entirely different.

The sand hills of North Carolina will test every aspect of each player's game during what is expected to be a hot and humid week. And though there's a clear favorite, there are also 155 other players in the field wanting to turn the third major of the year into their shining moment.

Here are five storylines we're watching at Pinehurst this week.

Scottie Scheffler's dominance

No one's presence looms larger over this golf tournament than Scottie Scheffler's. He has been mentioned in every news conference, is the talk of both his peers and fans and is far and away the favorite to win this week, not to mention the best player in the world by a healthy margin.

After winning the Memorial Tournament and adding to his five-win total for 2024, it continues to feel like barring any setback -- be it injury or something out of the ordinary -- Scheffler will contend every time he tees it up. As Viktor Hovland explained, it's not just that Scheffler is winning, it's that even when he doesn't play as well as he can, he can still win.

"We all hit great shots out here, and there are a lot of guys that are impressive, but you know the old saying: It's not about how good your good shots are, it's how good your bad shots are," Hovland said. "He's certainly playing a game where his bad shots are still good."

This year, Scheffler played in 13 events and finished inside the top 10 in 12 of them. He leads the tour in strokes gained: total averaging nearly 3 strokes gained over the field average. Even his putting has now improved to about tour average, which is enough for him to win pretty much everything on any given week.

"He is the gold standard right now," Bryson DeChambeau said. "And we're all looking up to him going, 'All right, how do we get to that level?'"

"Scottie is doing incredible things," PGA champion Xander Schauffele said. "Every week we play, he seems to build a bigger lead, and somehow make the mountain even taller for all of us to climb."

For all the genuflecting players are doing around Scheffler, it's evident they want to beat him and his play is only motivating them even more. The task at hand is not easy. Beyond the quality of Scheffler's game being what it is, it's hard to think of a course that fits Scheffler better than Pinehurst No. 2 with its demand on ballstriking and short game -- both of which are arguably Scheffler's biggest strengths.

"What I appreciate about this kind of course is a lot of the areas around the greens are all fairway, and so it may be extremely difficult shots, but there's always opportunity," Scheffler said. "I believe it's a better test than just having heavy rough over the back of every green."

If it's a true test that this course will provide, there's no one with a better chance of acing it than the No.1 player in the world. -- Uggetti

Who can beat Scheffler?

If Scheffler doesn't win his third major this week, then Schauffele might be poised to win his second straight. Outside of Scheffler, no one is playing better golf than Schauffele.

The 30-year-old from San Diego finished in the top 25 in each of his past 10 starts on tour, including seven in the top eight. He tied for second at the Players Championship, was solo second at the Wells Fargo Championship, a signature event, and then captured his first major at last month's PGA Championship.

After waiting so long to win a major -- 28 starts to be exact -- Schauffele said he's not done.

"Just checked one box," Schauffele said. "Just a lot of unchecked boxes. I just checked one box, which is really cool. Obviously, a box very much at the top of my list. But still a lot more to do, obviously."

Schauffele has been especially good in the U.S. Open. He finished in the top 10 in six of his seven starts in the tournament, including a tie for third at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California in 2019.

What's Schauffele's secret to success?

"Just what I bring week to week, just a little bit of extra patience," he said. "You have to ramp that up a little bit more during these weeks. All U.S. Opens, they're unique in their own way. But they all feel like par is a great score, and you really have to just plot your way around a property.

"I was here a week ago just for a little tuneup, and the way the course is playing now is significantly different already. I can only imagine what it's going to look like in two days." -- Schlabach

Pinehurst is ready to bite

Even before Wyndham Clark called the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 "borderline," players were already experiencing the tough challenge the course will provide this week. The firmness of the fairways and speed of the greens is already dialed up, setting up a week that could feature a lot of creative -- and frustrating -- short game shots around the course's diabolical greens.

"The last few days playing practice rounds -- I'm guilty as well as the rest of the guys I've played with -- we've putted off a lot of greens," Tiger Woods said. "It depends how severe the USGA wants to make this and how close they want to get us up to those sides. But I foresee just like in '05 watching some of the guys play pingpong back and forth. It could happen."

Woods, for his part, said he's been using everything from his 60-degree wedge to his 4-iron to hit different shots around the green. DeChambeau said he will likely stick to his wedges and putter, while players such as Collin Morikawa have even tried hybrids and fairway woods.

The event and the course present a different challenge than what PGA Tour players (and LIV players, for that matter) face on a week-to-week basis. Long irons, especially on par 3s, will be plenty, and hitting the green will be an even bigger advantage this week than any other. Once you're on, however, you're not safe either.

"I don't really know where they're going to end up putting the pins. But if they were, in my opinion, borderline yesterday when the greens were soft," Hovland said, before praising the raised, upside-down bowl nature of the greens. "What if it starts blowing up a little bit and the greens just keep getting firmer and faster? It'll be just interesting to see."

Whether it's praise or preemptive criticism, Pinehurst will not only be tough to conquer this week, but it should also provide great theater as players chart their way around a golf course that will make them think plenty over every shot.

"I think a course like this definitely demands a different skill set and also some creativity," Rory McIlroy said. "I think for the viewer at home, that's more exciting than seeing guys hack out of 4-inch rough all the time. Hopefully, that comes to fruition and it is an exciting golf tournament." -- Uggetti

What will the LIV Golf League players do?

In the last U.S. Open played at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014, Martin Kaymer ran away from the field and won by a whopping 8 strokes to become the first man from Germany to win the tournament.

After winning, Kaymer, now captain of Cleeks GC in the LIV Golf League, hadn't been back to Pinehurst until this week.

"Yeah, last time I was here was when I won," Kaymer said. "I live in Germany, and it's not really a place that you just swing by quickly for a couple days. Obviously, coming here with all those good memories, when I played today it felt like I left yesterday. The golf course looks a little bit different than 10 years ago, but the feeling was very positive."

Kaymer, 39, is even staying in the same room in a hotel near the course that he did a decade ago.

"I don't know if it helps," Kaymer said. "It cannot hurt, I guess. I'm a little bit superstitious when it comes down to that. I think, regardless, it's going to be a really nice week."

Kaymer is one of 12 players from the LIV Golf League in the U.S. Open field; Jon Rahm withdrew on Tuesday because of an injury to his left foot. After a stellar performance in the majors in 2023 (Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka tied for second at the Masters, then Koepka won his third PGA Championship), it has been a so-so start this year.

There were three LIV Golf players in the top 10 at the Masters (DeChambeau and Cameron Smith tied for sixth and Tyrrell Hatton tied for ninth) and just one at the PGA Championship (DeChambeau was second).

"I think Houston was actually a pretty solid test for us," DeChambeau said. "The Bermuda fairways and greens are somewhat similar to this week, so there was definitely some thought put into that. We make sure over there to try and set the schedule appropriate relative to the majors, as well." -- Schlabach

Who's going to the Olympics?

There's more than the U.S. Open trophy and a $20 million purse on the line at Pinehurst No. 2 this week. There are also spots in the Olympics men's golf tournament up for grabs. The cutoff to qualify for the tournament, scheduled for Aug. 1-4 at Le Golf National outside Paris, is on Monday.

The top 15 players -- but no more than four from each country -- in the Official World Golf Ranking will automatically qualify. After that, the rest of the 60-man field will be filled with no more than two players from a single country based on OWGR.

As it stands, Scheffler (No. 1), Schauffele (No. 2), Clark (No. 4) and Morikawa (No. 7) would represent the U.S.

Schauffele won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021.

There are five other Americans in the top 15 of the OWGR -- No. 9 Patrick Cantlay, No. 10 Max Homa, No. 11 Sahith Theegala, No. 12 Brian Harman and No. 15 Keegan Bradley -- but they wouldn't be eligible to compete in the Olympics under the selection rules.

Morikawa jumped Cantlay in the OWGR with a runner-up finish at the Memorial last week, so there certainly could be additional movement on the U.S. squad after the U.S. Open.

Other golfers who seem assured of being eligible for the Olympics include Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick (Great Britain), Hovland (Norway), McIlroy and Shane Lowry (Ireland), Hideki Matsuyama (Japan), Tom Kim and Ben An (South Korea) and Jon Rahm (Spain).

One of the tightest races is for the two spots on the Canadian team. Last week, Adam Hadwin finished third at the Memorial and moved from No. 59 to No. 35 in the OWGR. He jumped good friend Corey Conners (No. 46) to potentially join Nick Taylor (No. 32) on the team. -- Schlabach