SAN FRANCISCO, JUNE 17 -- Sundown comes early at the Olympic Club, usually around noon. Under the ubiquitous eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees, it's always evening here on a golf course carved from shadows and landscaped in mystery. These are haunted hills where nothing is what it seems; deceit was the architect.

This is where Ben Hogan in 1955 and Arnold Palmer in 1966 arrived as gods and left as mortals, slain by themselves, never to bag a major again. This is where unknown Jack Fleck can birdie the 72nd, then beat Hogan in a playoff to win the U.S. Open or Bing Crosby's son Nathaniel can grab the U.S. Amateur. It's where Billy Casper can trail Palmer by seven shots with nine to play, then end up winning a playoff.

Nothing possible ever has happened in a major golf tournament at Olympic. Only the fantastic. The joint is three for three in topping itself. The U.S. Open, which will begin here Thursday, has a job on its hands. Either Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson or Jack Nicklaus is going to come to the 72nd hole tied, or the place is going to be swallowed up by a quake. Nothing else can keep Olympic's progression intact.

The level of anticipation here is big-time special. Olympic is golf's Garbo -- reclusive, veiled, seldom seen and even more rarely played. Pros have set foot on it only twice in its existence, yet some consider it one of the world's five best courses and it's always in America's consensus top 10.

The praise for Olympic is hip deep here, as though a new generation of players now wishes to woo her ladyship, especially since nobody really knows what sort of man Olympic loves.

Norman, who calls the 6,709-yard, par-70 track "a truly great test from 1 to 18," thinks "the guy who hits it far has a big edge. As often as you're probably going to be in rough, at least you want to be as far down the fairway as possible."

Ballesteros, who calls Olympic "great, large and difficult" begs to differ -- entirely -- saying that staying out of the rough in the first place is the key. That and playing a fade, which he believes is obvious and essential.

"A fade?" said Lee Trevino. "Has Seve played the front nine? You gotta go left as much as right. But what this place really requires is a high ball. Gotta get it up."

Johnny Miller, raised here, says that they're all wrong and that the week's premium will be on the exotic ability "to work the ball" differently on almost every shot, since the severely sloping fairways and greens loathe a ball that arrives with the wrong trajectory and deposit it in the hay. That might favor the over-35 set who learned the game in a shotmaking era.

Former Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller muddles the debate wonderfully by saying flatly he doesn't think either of the two obvious pretournament favorites -- Norman or Ballesteros -- will win. "A long hitter doesn't have much of a chance," said Zoeller. "I don't see this as being a good chance for them . . . Long means wrong. Just too much rough here . . . Look for a medium hitter who plays offensively, like Tom Kite."

Perhaps just to be different, Jack Nicklaus, usually thought to be the most gifted course student in history, finds the place fair, tough, ideally suited to his own middle-aged game and yet something of a bore.

"It's a course that'll reward the golfer who's very straight, very simple . . . doesn't try to be a hero, uses his head and plods along . . . like Hogan," he said. "You can't overpower Olympic. You don't have to be long to win . . . Pop it down the middle. Plop it on the green. And always keep the ball below the hole."

Below the hole? "Play for the middle of every green," said Trevino. "Forget the hole. Don't even look at the flag. Aim for the centers."

Some call this course thrilling, "a test of every club," according to Zoeller. Yet Ballesteros said, "You can't invent on this course."

"Boring?" said Nicklaus. "I never said Olympic was boring." Then, in the next breath, Nicklaus added, "The second shot on {the 533-yard} No. 1 is the only decision you have to make on the whole course . . . There's nothing tricky about Olympic . . . No water. No out of bounds. One fairway trap on the whole course . . . Everything is right in front of your face. Just hit the shots. There's no reason a Ballesteros or Norman would be afraid of it. There's nothing out there to scare 'em."

Oh, yeah?

Well, defending Open champion Ray Floyd said that this might be the scariest, toughest golf course that some of these gentlemen will ever face in their lives. Johnny Miller can predict 275 as the winning score all he wants and Ballesteros can say 280, but Floyd figures that five- to 10-over par is in the cards, so hold onto your hats.

"You'll see the highest winning score in a lot of years. It's the longest 'short' course in the world," said Floyd, citing eight par-4s of 417 yards or more, a 223-yard par-3 and the unreachable, 609-yard 17th hole that Nicklaus said may be the toughest hole in the world. "There's wind. The speed of the greens is lightning. The fairways are hard; they weren't in 1966. Now it's tougher because the fairway is so narrow that your ball runs into the rough. And these greens are so small and hard that you can't hold 'em from the rough."

All this, said Floyd, is a perfect synopsis of every basic qualification for a brutal golf course. Prepare for four days of angry folks standing in four-inch rough or blasting out of deep front bunkers or coping with unstoppable downhill chips from deep fringe behind greens.

Norman predicts that no one will win. Okay, okay, so he said, "If it doesn't rain {and soften conditions}, we're in for a long, tough tournament." Floyd and Trevino both smell No. 2 money-winner Payne Stewart as just the sort with the all-around game for Olympic. "He's a real nice player now," said Floyd.

Nicklaus favors short-straight conservative players such as Kite, Hale Irwin and Corey Pavin or Bay-area veterans with local knowledge such as Miller or even Roger Maltbie. "Of course, Norman and Seve can adjust and bring their games back to any course."

Nicklaus also thinks Olympic is "realistically a very, very good course for me at this stage of my career" except that, "I'm playing as badly right now as I can ever remember playing. I don't have any complaints except with Jack Nicklaus . . . I'm putting well. I've played plenty recently . . . but I can't hit the ball square on the clubface and I don't know why."

A stage hardly could be better set. Ballesteros is seething after double-bogeying himself out of a Westchester Classic win on the first playoff hole last Sunday. He flew all night and was on the tee here at 9 a.m. Monday, primed for atonement. Floyd came to Shinnecock Hills in just such a Westchester fury last year. "The U.S. Open is my No. 1 target," Ballesteros said.

Norman is playing well (fourth at the Kemper Open two weeks ago) and even Floyd has found a bit of form after a bad year. Watson knows the course and the area; his last big win was at nearby Pebble Beach. If Hal Sutton could make a putt, he'd match the job description. What about No. 1 money-winner Paul Azinger or Ben Crenshaw, who's never won an Open but is finally hitting the ball straighter? Few mention Bernhard Langer, but Sandy Lyle's name comes up. Isn't Larry Mize still in the Grand Slam picture? Will Calvin Peete ever play well in an Open, the event that seems created for him?

The gang's all here; and nobody's got a clue. Just the way Olympic would want it. In an event that has given the world Sam Parks, Orville Moody and Andy North, on a course that could give Hogan and Palmer their worst humiliations, no scenario could be called impossible.

By the way, has anybody seen Mac O'Grady lately?