These days, every tough golf course is called a "monster." One famous track has even named itself the Blue Monster. But there had to be an original Monster.

It's here.

And it's back.

When the U.S. Open begins here Thursday at Oakland Hills, the course that Ben Hogan called "that monster" in 1951 will be back at maximum nastiness.

"This is, by far, the toughest course we've played this year. And it's also the toughest course we play in the U.S. Open rotation," said Tom Watson on a raw, blustery day.

"It's going to be very, very difficult. You'll see a lot of scores in the 80s and a few in the 90s . . . I'm glad we don't have rough like they had at Oakmont two years ago or you'd see scores in the 100s . . .

"Maybe the only harder course I've seen was Winged Foot in 1974," continued Watson. "You'll see some very, very high scores here and the winning score will be over par (280)."

Everyone agrees that Oakland Hills is long (6,996 yards) and has as severely undulating greens as can be found.

"How would I know if I'm putting well?" lamented Jack Nicklaus. "Even the six-foot putts have three feet of break."

"Hubert Green told me that you could hit 13 of your best iron shots into these greens and come away with maybe two birdies," said defending champion Fuzzy Zoeller. "The undulations are awesome. Wheew. Worst I've ever seen."

"It's a helluva tough golf course," said the PGA Tour's leading money winner, Curtis Strange. "I didn't remember much of it from when we played the PGA here in 1979. Now I know why. I probably tried to forget it."

All agree that, for the second year in a row, the United States Golf Association has grown fair rough -- between four and five inches. "At least it's not ticklin' your kneecaps," said Strange.

On the other hand, the greens here are so firm (even after all-day rains Tuesday) that Oakland Hills may actually be tougher under these parameters than if lush conditions had produced long rough and soft fairways.

"This is the toughest combination," said Watson. "Rough long enough to give you uncontrollable flyer lies and greens that won't hold those hot shots."

Add to all this terror the problem of Oakland Hills' omnipresent fairway bunkers. "Go in one of those babies and it's automatic bogey," said Strange.

"The par 4s are so long that you can't even lay up off the tee with three-wood or one-iron. You almost have to use your driver and that puts you right where the fairways narrow down to a neck," said Watson. "It favors the long hitter."

"You're going to have to use every club in your bag," said Zoeller. "In fact, I think I used 'em all on 18."

Oh, yes, the 18th. At 453 yards, it may be the toughest closing hole in the world that doesn't have water in play.

When the first threesome among the 156 players starts teeing off at 7 a.m. Thursday, there probably will not be a clear betting favorite in the field. Bobby Jones once said, "Nobody wins the National Open. Someone just survives." That may be doubly true this time.

Not one of the folks usually singled out as a front-runner figures to do well here. The old champ Zoeller has such back miseries that he's probably here only out of a sense of obligation. Greg Norman, who lost a playoff to him at Winged Foot, hasn't made a dent in American golf since that day.

"Greg's been flying all over the world so much that I think he's left his body behind in another time zone," said Zoeller.

Watson, who lived by his putting for years, is openly pessimistic, saying, "I'm not stroking it very well. I have a game plan, but if it doesn't work (shrug) it doesn't work." Despite his $179,783 in winnings, Watson hasn't won a title this year and he's worried about an apparent inability to read greens because of deteriorating eyesight.

Jack Nicklaus, the perennial favorite, says, "The more I play, the worse I play. I've never practiced this much in my life. Maybe I'm taking myself too seriously . . . forcing the issue . . . putting too much pressure on myself . . . I've putted poorly all year . . . I went on a diet and lost too much weight (from 190 to 173) and -- can you imagine this? -- I've spent the last two weeks trying to gain weight. I felt weak . . .

"I'd like to be in a position to figure out whether (at 45) I can still handle the pressure on Sunday."

Strange says, "I'm not playing very well right now," and doesn't think the course particularly suits him. No. 2 PGA Tour money winner Lanny Wadkins has an atrocious Open record. His lack of patience probably will hurt him here again. No. 3 man on the cash list, Calvin Peete, has withdrawn with a back injury.

The next fellow, No. 4 money man Ray Floyd, is on a hot streak. He lost a playoff at Westchester on Sunday. But of all active great golfers, Floyd has the worst Open record -- never better than sixth.

Looking for recent Tour winners doesn't help much. Roger Maltbie, who won at Westchester, didn't qualify for the Open. Kemper Open champ Bill Glasson would be the biggest Open longshot in history if he won.

Shortish hitters such as Corey Pavin, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite don't figure to do well on such a brutish track, although all are in the top 13 in money. Bernhard Langer, not seen in America since April, says he's still playing solidly, "but not as well as when I won the Masters."

Seve Ballesteros has supporters because of his length, his finesse and his experience under pressure. But he's seldom liked tight Open layouts and hasn't been in a streak. Craig Stadler's been runner-up four times this year, but his temper seems a prohibitive flaw on a course that will demand saintly calm.

Watson maintains that "this course is so tough that only about 10 players have a chance to win -- it's going to be someone with a lot of Open experience."

Ahhh, lots of experience. Probably somebody who's been here early, learning all the tricks and traps of Oakland Hills. Excuse us, Jack Nicklaus. Who was out here last Friday and Saturday during your practice rounds?

"I was the first player here to practice and there was not another player here either day," said Nicklaus. "That surprised me. This is the U.S. Open.

"They haven't played the Open here since 1961. I'm the only one in the field who played then. Makes me feel my age. But I thought that (unfamiliarity) would have brought more (players) in to practice," said Nicklaus. "A U.S. Open requires some special preparation. Not having it should eliminate a lot of guys."

With so many players "logically" eliminated, maybe the winner will be the last man on the course after everybody else has walked off the course in disgust and quit. In that case, Fred Funk's back in the hunt. Funk, the University of Maryland golf coach and Middle Atlantic PGA stalwart, will be the last man off the tee.