SAN FRANCISCO — Just before 7 a.m. Tuesday, Tiger Woods pulled his driver from his bag and turned to face the first hole at the Olympic Club. The fairway ran out straight before him, then disappeared around a corner to the right. It leaned down a hill, the hill upon which the entire course sits. At the bottom, out of sight, sat the hole, some 520 yards away, a wicked and punishing par 4. Come Thursday, this will be the start of the U.S. Open. And then this course gets tough.
Olympic’s first six holes set a tone for the tournament that is unrelenting and inescapable. There are par 4s of 520, 498 and 489 yards. There is a par 3 of 247 yards with nowhere safe to miss. Rarely does a fairway find a flat spot, what with the entire course cascading down a steep pitch toward Lake Merced. And when the breeze picks up off the Pacific, just across the road from the clubhouse, watch out.
“The first six, if you play them for four straight days even par, you’re going to be picking up just a boatload of shots,” Woods said. “They’re just difficult.”
The U.S. Open annually bills itself as golf’s toughest test, and this year — particularly with the memory of soft and squishy Congressional Country Club rolling over for champion Rory McIlroy – it almost certainly will be. McIlroy set records of all manner, finishing 16 under par, shooting four rounds in the 60s, slaying Congressional and all but embarrassing the U.S. Golf Association. The USGA will protest, saying revenge won’t be a factor this week. Scarcely a player in the field believes that.
“With what happened last year, with Rory shooting a million under, they’re going to kind of torture us a little bit,” said Fairfax native Steve Marino, making his fourth Open appearance.
The most difficult U.S. Open in recent memory came in 2007 at Oakmont, Pa., where Angel Cabrera’s winning score was 5 over par. “I think here matches it,” Masters champion Bubba Watson said. “Maybe a little bit tougher.” That is not, however, a consensus. Olympic’s quirks — from that torturous opening stretch to a finish that could be relatively benign, with cantered fairways that require players to shape shots into them just to avoid the rough — will dictate how this plays out.
Start with the club’s résumé. Olympic, to this point, has produced upsets, not coronations. In 1955, a journeyman named Jack Fleck famously outdueled Ben Hogan, a legend, in a playoff. In 1966, Arnold Palmer held a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play and somehow fell back into a playoff, which he lost to Billy Casper. In 1987, Tom Watson, the premier player of his era, held a one-shot lead headed into the back nine on Sunday, yet lost by a shot to Scott Simpson. And in 1998, Payne Stewart owned a four-shot lead going into Sunday’s final round, shot 74, and lost to a blazing Lee Janzen, who closed with a 68 and won by one.
Since that last Open — when Stewart infamously hit a six-foot putt on the viciously sloped 18th green only to watch it roll 25 feet back down the hill — the greens at Olympic have been overhauled twice. Some of those slopes have been softened. Lifelong Olympic member Johnny Miller, who will call the tournament for NBC, said the layout is “the best it’s ever been.”
What that means for the tournament is up for debate. What’s not: The punishment of the opening stretch could be offset by the close. There are no par 5s at Olympic until 16. Another par 5 awaits at 17. And the closing hole, a 344-yard par 4 with a fairway not much wider than a crack in the sidewalk, will leave almost everyone in the field taking an iron off the tee, then a pitching wedge to get to a tiny, elevated green. The result?
“It gives you a chance to finish off a round,” Woods said. “Generally we’re just trying to hang on coming in and make a bunch of pars. But you’re trying to make a bunch of pars throughout most of the day, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to change gears.”
That could present an interesting dynamic: Survive for 15 holes, score for three, and see what washes out.
“All of a sudden it lets you in with a chance,” said Frank Nobilo, an analyst for the Golf Channel who played the last U.S. Open at Olympic 14 years ago. “At least you get three scoring clubs in your hand, even if you don’t go for 17 in two, to create that sort of weird finish and give you a little bit of hope.”
Hope, at U.S. Opens, usually comes in small quantities. There is, too, some debate about exactly how much scoring will be accomplished at the 16th, a monstrous, sweeping dogleg left that stretches to an absurd 670 yards, the longest hole in U.S. Open history. “It’s the hardest hole out here,” five-time Open runner-up Phil Mickelson said. “It’s definitely the hardest — arguably the worst.” Mickelson predicts it will play further over par than any hole at Olympic, which would be odd for a par 5.
The final two holes, though, almost certainly will bring jolts of electricity. The par-5 17th is a reachable 522 yards — indeed, just two yards longer than the opening hole, which plays as a par 4. But overhanging trees and tightly mowed areas around the green could leave imprecise pitches tumbling back to a player’s feet.
“It’s a hole that provides an eagle opportunity, but can easily lead to a bogey or double,” Mickelson said. “I think there could be a big swing on 17. And 18 . . . you think it’s a nothing hole, but you hook it in the rough and make double, and you lose the Open. It’s really a great finish.”
A great finish, a rough start and a U.S. Open-style U.S. Open course in between. Beginning Thursday, Congressional is a memory. At Olympic, the Open seems set to return, perhaps with a vengeance.