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Pinehurst ready to challenge a very different Scott in 2014

By Andrew Both

(Reuters) - Adam Scott has certainly taken his game to another level in the majors recently but he is not exactly a new face on the golf scene as he sets his sights on next week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst in North Carolina.

Nine years ago, the Australian was only three shots from the U.S. Open halfway lead on Pinehurst's No. 2 Course before fading over the weekend to finish equal 28th, 11 strokes behind winner Michael Campbell of New Zealand.

"Of course I am a different player (now)," Scott said while preparing for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort, the third time the year's second major will be staged at the venue.

"I'm a lot older and experienced, and I'm playing well. But I was also playing well when I went in there last time.

"I was on that ride up as a kid. I think I generally played OK there that week (at Pinehurst) and maybe didn't finish the best on Sunday."

Scott was ranked seventh in the world at the time but was largely ignored by the media, something that will not happen at next week's edition when he will return to Pinehurst in all likelihood as the game's top-ranked player.

But never mind his ranking. What makes Scott a favorite for this year's U.S. Open is his recent consistency in the majors.

Since hooking up with swing coach Brad Malone, who is also his brother-in-law, and having reassessed his focus, Scott has become a regular presence on the leaderboard at majors.

Sure, he blew a late four-shot lead to lose the 2012 British Open to South African Ernie Els, but that proved nothing more than a temporary setback.

CONTENDING FOR MAJORS

Scott won his first major at the Masters last year, becoming the first Australian to earn the coveted green jacket, and was also in contention deep into the final round at the 2013 British Open, which was ultimately won by Phil Mickelson.

"It's been a lot of work the last couple of years to play this consistent, to bring my game to the level of where I really wanted in the big events, and to maintain it you've got to continue to have that drive," he said.

"It's been a lot of hours at home constantly trying to improve and trying to be smart about it."

The biggest strength of Scott's game is his driving. Perhaps only Rory McIlroy hits it as long and straight off the tee.

Scott has won plenty of tournaments on courses that favor long hitters, but he has also proved himself capable of winning at venues that do not, such as the recent Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

But whether or not he contends at next week's U.S. Open may depend on his short game around Pinehurst's heavily crowned greens.

Scott may not have the repertoire of shots of short-game genius Mickelson, for example, but he is no slouch either and his long putter should hold him in good stead on the greens.

"It's a demanding golf course," he said of Pinehurst's No. 2 layout. "It's got its own unique challenges. It's a different set of greens than we see at most U.S. Opens."

And it is a very different Adam Scott from the one who shot 74 and 76 in the final two rounds at Pinehurst in 2005.

(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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