- US Open
No Tiger a major boost for McIlroy and compatriots
Thursday will see a major start for the just the sixth time without Tiger Woods in the field since he turned pro in 1996.
Monday will be the sixth anniversary of Woods' last major victory.
Six years ago, despite enduring a knee injury, Tiger held off Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole play-off on the Monday to win his 14th major title in his 46th attempt.
He seemed almost unbeatable, even on one leg.
Whilst Woods has won 16 events in the six years since 2008, he has failed to win any of the last 24 major championships, allowing a host of lesser known names to join the major ranks.
Since Tiger's win at Torrey Pines, 18 different players have won a major, including 15 first-time major winners.
So his absence at Pinehurst for this year's US Open should not be all that significant, right? Not quite.
At Pinehurst, the difference could be substantial. Tiger has competed in two previous US Opens at the North Carolina course, in 1999 and 2005, when those events were won by Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell. Woods finished tied third in 1999 and second in 2005, meaning of the 310 competitors he was up against, he beat 306 of them.
In historical terms, Tiger not playing in a major turns out to be great news for Ireland. Four of the five previous majors Tiger has missed were won by Irishmen:
2008 Open Championship: Padraig Harrington
2008 PGA Championship: Padraig Harrington
2011 US Open: Rory McIlroy
2011 Open Championship: Darren Clarke
2014 Masters: Bubba Watson
It is almost impossible to quantify the absolute influence Tiger's absence had on these events, but it is safe to assume it made some difference, at least in terms of scoring.
For instance, take Padraig Harrington's two "Tiger-less" victories. The first, the 2008 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, was won with the highest winning score-to-par in 14 years (+3).
Similarly Harrington's win at the following PGA Championship at Oakland Hills was won with the highest winning score-to-par in 27 years (-3).
More often than not, if Tiger has been missing from an event the focus turns to Phil Mickelson. Having finished second to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999, and tied 33rd six years later, you would think Phil would merit that attention this year.
You would be wrong.
For the first time since Tiger turned pro, neither Tiger or Phil has registered a single top-10 finish prior to the US Open. In fact, they've never had less than five before:
Combined Top 10s prior to US Open for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson1997: 10 2006: 12
1998: 13 2007: 11
1999: 13 2008: 11
2000: 16 2009: 11
2001: 18 2010: 5
2002: 15 2011: 6
2003: 10 2012: 9
2004: 18 2013: 9
2005: 12 2014: 0
However, despite his poor form this season and a drop to 11th in the world rankings, Mickelson tends to perform well in the year's second major. It is well documented that he has six runner-up finishes at the US Open, more than any other player.
It is also worth noting Mickelson has more US Open top-10 finishes than Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell have combined. If there is any tournament that could right the ship for Lefty, it is this one.
Keeping all of that in mind, here's the pick of the contenders:
Rory McIlroy: With an eighth-placed finish at the last two majors, Rory comes into Pinehurst on the back of a rejuvenated 2014 season, not least thanks to his win in the BMW Championship at Wentworth last month. He hasn't finished outside the top 25 in his last 15 events, notching an impressive 11 top 10s and two wins.
Jason Dufner: Despite a tough season, Dufner already has a major under his belt and is the only player to finish inside the top five of the last two US Opens.
Sergio Garcia: Since the start of November last year, Sergio has played 12 events and finished inside the top four in half of them. He is also the only player in the field this week that finished in the top 10 of the 2005 US Open at Pinehurst.
Zach Johnson: With the US Open at Pinehurst No.2 playing hard and fast, almost like an Open Championship, with tough greens, Johnson's game should serve him well. He is the only player with three consecutive top 20 finishes at The Open and is currently one of only four players that rank inside the top 50 in greens in regulation, scrambling and strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour (alongside Matt Kuchar, Adam Scott and Garcia).
Jamie Kennedy is a golf statistician. Follow him on Twitter