In for a rough ride
The Olympic Club, despite having no water, will sink players if they don’t keep it on the fairway
SAN FRANCISCO - They’ve held 111 US Opens, and the four that were played on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club have stood the test of time, its quartet of champions long remembered for who they were, who they beat, and how they won.
From upsets (1955, Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan) to collapses (1966, Arnold Palmer losing a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, then dropping a playoff to Billy Casper) to comebacks (Scott Simpson’s three late birdies in 1987, Lee Janzen from seven shots down in 1998), the Olympic Club has produced four unforgettable US Opens.
A fifth could come this week, when the US Open returns to the Bay Area, bringing along enough stories to stretch from one end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the other. Can California natives Phil Mickelson (five US Open runner-ups) and Tiger Woods (four years since his last major win) break through with emotional victories in their home state? Can Lee Westwood or Luke Donald win their first major? Can Masters champion Bubba Watson win two straight? Can Rory McIlroy become the first player since 1989 to successfully defend?
If we’ve learned anything from the history here, a US Open at the Olympic Club won’t follow the expected script. And that’s OK; the unexpected version has proven to be much more compelling.
“One of my predecessors, Frank Hannigan, once said that something magical always happens when we have a US Open here, and he’s right,’’ said Mike Davis, the executive director of the US Golf Association who’s also in charge of course setup. “You look back, there’s just been some magical moments.’’
More magic could be coming, and it’ll be played out on a course that’s unique and slightly different than 1998, the last time the US Open was here. The Lake Course has no water, and only one true fairway bunker. Instead, it offers a collection of doglegs that frame super-tight, canted fairways. There’s new grass on the greens (bent, instead of Poa annua), a new No. 8 (still a par 3, but lengthened from 137 yards to 200), a new bunker, and a kinder, gentler putting surface at the 18th, which is surrounded by a massive viewing amphitheater that leads up a steep hill toward the clubhouse.
Like almost every US Open - last year’s being the rare exception, when McIlroy had a record 16-under-par total - the rough will be thick, the greens will be firm, and a premium will be placed on . . . well, just about every facet of one’s game. The US Open might be the most democratic championship, but it’s also the most unforgiving. Player predictions on the what the low 72-hole total will be are trending over par, with some guessing as high as 7 or 8 over.
A big reason for that is the opening six holes, which Davis acknowledges might be the toughest in golf. The five par-4 holes average 475 yards - topped by the first, at 520 only 2 yards shorter than the par-5 17th - and the par-3 third can play 247. Get through that six-pack intact, and you can finally exhale, at least for one hole, since the par-4 seventh is only 288 yards.
“I think that 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.’’
If the opening six will see players hanging on for dear life, the closing four should offer another US Open rarity: the ability to string together birdies to make up ground or pull away. Players should be using short irons for their approach shots on the final four holes, so anyone needing a late rally can piece one together.
The par-3 15th is only 154 yards, bringing players to No. 16, the first par 5. A new tee has been built there, allowing the USGA to play the hole at a robust 670 yards, which Davis intends to do on two of the four days. The 17th has been switched from a long par 4 in previous US Opens to a reachable par 5, giving aggressive players a chance at eagle (par remains 70, because the first hole used to be a short par 5, and now is a long par 4).
That leaves the distinctive 18th, a short par 4 of 344 yards that will see hybrid or long-iron tee shots to the narrowest fairway on the course. The tee shot is downhill, the approach uphill, to a green that still slopes back to front, but has been flattened by about one-third.
Like all the holes at Olympic, the margin for error, even on No. 18, is small, one of the reasons the USGA likes bringing the US Open back here. Those who can hit fairways will be able to pick their spots and attack. Those who can’t won’t last long. It cost Palmer down the stretch in ’66, a defeat that still stings, but one of the reasons that Olympic has been such a suitable venue.
“It’s fun to be back at Olympic,’’ Mickelson said. “It’s great to be on the West Coast and great to be at a golf course here in the San Francisco area that is such a wonderful test of golf and has had so many great things happen over the years here.’’
Strap yourselves in, golf fans. We could be in for a wild ride.