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There’s really nothing like a USGA Championship and this week is a big taste of history. San Francisco has provided some great stories in sports and this event will surely live up to that past drama. The site this time is The Olympic Club, where players like Palmer and Hogan have come up short at US Opens, and most notably we remember the 1998 installment won by Lee Janzen over Payne Stewart. In that 1998 edition, we saw a controversial pin on the 18th hole that caused a cruel three-putt, plenty of debate and more suffering than the average Open green. Eight USGA events have been played at Olympic, starting with Jack Fleck's improbable upset of Hogan in 1955 in a Monday playoff.
It’s a memorable golf course personal significance for me -- I played the 2004 US Junior Amateur at Olympic. Having played the course a number of times, it will be fun to see how the players handle the challenge that EACH and EVERY shot brings. Two USGA events have been played here since that 1998 Open, and both had standout performances by then-amateurs who made the event through sectional qualifying. Brian Harman won the stroke play portion of the US Junior by eight shots, shooting 66-67 in stroke play. The 2007 US Amateur was won by Colt Knost, who barely made match play that year but has managed to put together some steady Tour finishes since his controversial decision to turn pro after his victory.
The last three Opens were won by Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Lucas Glover. To paint a picture, San Francisco is not far from normal PGA TOUR life. We’re up the coast an hour or so from the Monterey Peninsula where Phil Mickelson won this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Lots of the same, great Northern California sights and sounds. This is a grand golf area and we’re surrounded by two other historic courses: Harding Park (WGC, Presidents Cup) and San Francisco Golf Club, which a surprising number of people call their favorite course. Olympic’s Lake Course (there are 36 holes here) is truly built for a major. This place has all the special flavor. The clubhouse even has a famous hotdog, which is actually a hamburger in a hotdog bun. It’s a step above the rest.
The Olympic Club is a unique challenge for a number of reasons. First, the fairways are narrow and undulating, often sloping in the opposite direction to the curve of the hole, which makes it difficult to find short grass. This makes the play an overall challenge because so many greens are raised, the rough is thick (although it seems the USGA has extended the 1" fairway collars), and the greens slope severely back to front on most holes.
The scorecard is different than a normal US Open setup, or from Olympic's Opens of the past. The first hole, which is normally a par-5 for members and tournaments, will play as an incredibly difficult par-4. It will play 520 yards and missing the fairway will make it nearly impossible to hit the green on approach. A bunker covers the landing area short of the green and rough cuts out the fairway short the green, so a ball must land very close to the green. Moving on, both par 3’s on the side are incredibly difficult: No. 8, completely redesigned and now playing 200 yards, and No. 3, a small green guarded by bunkers at 247 yards. Overall, the front will be a very tough par 34 at 3,557 yards.
Although there is no water at Olympic, the course attacks players from all angles. Believe it or not, overhanging trees will play a part. The long holes are very narrow and intimidating off the tee. A player who does not love a tree-lined course will feel uncomfortable off the tee. It can be intimidating. The two par-5’s at Olympic will be at the end of the round. No. 16 will be a US Open-record 670 yards with a narrow, double dogleg guarded by bunkers around the green. The 17th hole, normally a difficult par-4, will be a 522 yard par-5. The hole plays straight uphill on approach, which is very difficult because players need to stop the ball quickly on a fast green. If it lands short, it will be a tricky chip. Not a gimme birdie by any stretch.
The holes in the middle of the round are the scoring opportunities: Nos. 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are par-4's that can be played at medium length and present some occasional scoring chances depending on the pins.
Matt Kuchar... he’s picked a slightly different schedule this year that included a stretch of tough golf courses because he says his driving accuracy off the tee is one of his strengths. A win at the PLAYERS and steady, consistent golf for the last few years has made him as worthy a candidate as any for this week. In 1998, he finished in the top 15 here as an amateur. He was nine shots back of the winning score and beat Tiger, among others. He was also top-15 in the last two US Opens.
Carl Pettersson... Watched him play a lot of golf this year and his shot shape off the tee is a beautiful fit to these curving, narrow, tree-lined holes. He’s won on such courses multiple times in his career, most recently at the RBC Heritage this year.
Tiger Woods...won two of the last three US Opens in California. He has two wins this year and has been progressively playing better golf with a hiccup or two along the way. I would be worried about his putting since he struggled this year to a 75 in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with putting struggles, but he’s improved dramatically since and has recaptured our imagination with that brilliant hole-out flopper at Memorial.
Steve Stricker... A top-5 finish in 1998, standout performances in his past two PGA TOUR seasons including a win this year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He’s got the short game to win a major and maybe it’s his time.
Ernie Els... Ballstriking has been on all year and perhaps these refurbished bent greens will be a welcome change of pace. I think he might just find the spark in a different setting.
Lee Westwood finished top 10 here in 1998 and has steadily improved the last five years on Tour. A few close calls in majors, this could be his best opportunity. Always trying to find the putter, with high scores probable he might have his best chance here.
Brian Harman won stroke play at Olympic in 2004 for the US Junior by a whopping eight shots. Back eight years later, it's still a good track for him.
Phil Mickelson. Nobody has been better on the PGA TOUR this year in California. On West coast greens, he’s won (at nearby Pebble) and had a runner-up. A t10 in 1998. Last US Open winner over 40 was Payne Stewart in 1999 -- and he beat Phil with that memorable par on No. 18 at Pinehurst No. 2. This year, Phil is 42, the same age as Payne in 1999.
Padraig Harrington. He played in 1998 and has been steadily improving this year, trying to find the consistency. Quietly looking for the third leg of the Grand Slam. Draws do very well here off the tee, so it should suit his eye.
Bubba Watson. Paired with Tiger and Phil for Thursday and Friday, he has done well at this event. If the curves and humps and bumps ask for wind and creative decision making, look out. Going for second major of the year -- he's the only one who can win the slam. Since The Masters, he's been taking a lot of time off however.