San Francisco - The Olympic Club's Lake course may be the only layout where the margin of error on many drives is as small as that on a four-foot putt. The player who is unable to start his ball on a pinpoint will find a world of woe. This is only one of the reasons Olympic, where the 112th U.S. Open will start Thursday, could prove to be the most treacherous in the championship's history.
The first six holes at Olympic are evil: simple as that. Tiger Woods, who tied for 18th place at the 1998 U.S. Open here, said he'd be pleased to get through them at even par. Other players would be okay with getting past them two over. The first hole is a slightly downhill 520-yard par-four. Par-four! The fairway is a sliver. The rough is high. The green is rock hard. Welcome to Olympic.
On to the fourth hole, a beauty, in a perverse way. It's just 438 yards, but the fairway cants severely left to right, while the hole turns sharply right to left. Trees protect the right side almost immediately off the tee. Yet the hole asks for a right to left shot into the fairway's slope. That's how to keep the ball on the fairway. Neat trick.
Three golfers practising in a foursome Tuesday, including 2011 U.S. Senior Open champion Olin Browne, hit the trees off their tee shots. They were just 100 yards from the tee when they played their second shots. That's U.S. Open golf at Olympic. Oh yes, the green is elevated, which makes the hole play longer.
And how about the ninth green, where Mike Davis, the United States Golf Association's executive director and the man most responsible for course setup, decreed that the grass around it be closely mown? That will allow players to be creative if they miss the green, which sits on a knoll. The ground is so firm and fast that the ball will run away if the player misses the green on his approach shot. It will "chase," to use a word Woods likes. The golfers will need to be creative.
Then there's the 16th hole, only 670 yards. Only. It's the longest par-five in U.S. Open history. In truth, it's not a great hole. It's insanely long, that's all, and will require two mighty heaves and a wedge. The hole lacks character. It stands out for its length alone and its right to left, reverse-C configuration. It's hard to believe anybody could hit the green in two shots without a mighty wind at his back.
Dustin Johnson is one golfer who could do that in such conditions, perhaps. He won the PGA Tour event in Memphis last week, and he's one of the longest hitters on planet golf. But he told Shawn Mullin, a Canadian who lives in Mississauga and who works as a tour representative for equipment maker TaylorMade, that the par-five 17th hole, at only 522 yards, is the hardest hole he's ever played.
Say what? But a look at the hole is enough to understand why he feels that way. The narrow fairway tilts hard from left to right. It's nausea-inducing. The green, like all Olympic's greens, is as firm as ice, and as slippery. It falls off steeply at the rear and to the right, where there are trees.
The player who finds the fairway with his drive will be tempted to go for the green with his second shot. Johnson told Mullin he'll likely play his second shot short of the green and pitch up to the hole. Maybe he will be that prudent. Or maybe not.
Olympic's par for the U.S. Open is 34-36 for 70, or a 280 total for the championship. But par is just a number, and the winning number at Olympic could be anything – even over par. It's easy to see that, because the course is so tough. Olympic will make players queasy, and crazy.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein