2012 US Open golf championship: Who and what to watch for

2012 US Open: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson will play together on Thursday. How will they play the historic 16th hole at the Olympic Club in San Francisco?

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    Bubba Watson, winner of the 2012 Masters, hits from a bunker to the second green during a practice round for the 2012 US Open golf tournament on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., June 13.
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Thursday morning, the US Open golf championship returns to California for the first time since the thrilling 2008 tournament featuring an injured Tiger Woods and an inspired Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

The 2012 US Open is one of the four "majors" or biggest events on the PGA tour each year. This year, it will be played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, which has hosted the Open several times in the past. Jack Fleck won there in 1955. 11 years later, Billy Casper captured the national championship at Olympic. Scott Simpson was victorious at the San Francisco course in 1987. Then, in 1998 at Olympic, Lee Janzen won the second of his two US Opens.

The US Golf Association has already got people talking about one of their first- and second-round pairings. Past Open champion Tiger Woods will be paired with this year's Masters champ Bubba Watson, and former Masters and PGA champ Phil Mickelson, who told PGATOUR.com he likes the pairing.

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"I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it," Mickelson said. "I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it's time to tee off on Thursday I'll be ready to play. One of the issues I've had this year I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won't be this week."

Woods won his second PGA victory of 2012 at the Memorial tournament early this month, and appears to be ready to contend for his 15th major.  But Woods told USA TODAY this week don't look for a lot of conversation between himself, Watson, and Mickelson.

"I think this is one of those championships that I think the guys talk the least to one another because it's so difficult," Woods said.

US Open courses are notoriously difficult. The holes are longer, the rough deeper, and the greens faster. They are often the most difficult tests that professional golfers face.

Defending US Open champion Rory McIlroy has had an up-and-down season so far in 2012. The Northern Irishman won the Honda Classic in early March. But since then, he's been inconsistent, shooting over par in the final two rounds of the Masters and not making consecutive cuts at the Players Championship and the Memorial.

However, last weekend, he finished tied for seventh at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis and got some positive feedback, according to USOpen.com.

"It was a really good idea that I went there. I definitely feel more comfortable about my game going into this week [than] if I hadn't have played. So I'm happy that I did," McIlroy said on Tuesday.

The 2011 US Open champ is paired for the first two rounds with Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, two men who are still looking for their first win in a golf major.

Another golfer to keep an eye on will be Jason Dufner, who has won twice in the last seven weeks. He won his first PGA Tour title at New Orleans, then followed it up with victory No. 2 at the Byron Nelson.

The youngest golfer in the 112th US Open field will be 14 year-old Andy Zhang, who was born in China, but now lives in Florida. He qualified as an alternate and got into the tournament when Britain's Paul Casey withdrew.

Every year, the US Open is contested on a very challenging layout. This year is no different, with an interesting note about the Olympic course: the 16th hole measures 670 yards, the longest hole in US Open history.

The first two rounds of the US Open will be televised on both NBC and ESPN. Coverage on ESPN begins at 12 noon Eastern time Thursday. At 3 p.m. Eastern, NBC will provide coverage until 5 p.m. Eastern. Then, ESPN will come back with more golf from 5-10 p.m. Eastern time. This schedule will be repeated on Friday.

Recommended: The Majors: A history quiz on golf's biggest tournaments
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