US OPEN 2012: Setting the scene at OlympicJune, 2012
A classic US Open test awaits in California at a course where several notable underdogs have had their day
If history can teach us anything, do not expect the Olympic gold medal to go Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods or Lee Westwood. On four occasions this storied and elite San Francisco club has hosted the national championship. And every time the winner has been the underdog.
Most recently, in 1998, Lee Janzen became one of the more unlikely double Major champions of recent times, holding off Payne Stewart. In 1987 it was unheralded Scott Simpson, with Tom Watson unable to dislodge him from the top of the leaderboard, while 21 years earlier Billy Caspar held off Arnold Palmer, then at his buccaneering best.
But the greatest shock of all was also the first. The year was 1955 and Ben Hogan arrived in California in search of a record fifth US Open title.
Jack Fleck, an unknown from Iowa, was not even in the picture after three rounds and when Hogan closed with a 70, the title was all but conceded to him.
But these were the days before the leaders went out last and Fleck, whose first three rounds read 76, 69, 75, was back out in the country putting together the score of his life. He looked as amazed as everyone else when an eight-footer for birdie dropped in at the last and he had tied Hogan with a 67.
Still, the favourite would inevitably prevail in the 18-hole play-off the following day – except he didn’t. Fleck holed putt after putt en route to a 69 and a three-shot triumph.
So in every case, the leaderboards were full of quality yet a lesser-fancied name came out on top. All of which brings us back to the present and the mouthwatering prospect of a classic US Open.
Olympic is one of the most subtle and traditional of venues. While Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach are more spectacular, and ongressional, scene of McIlroy’s subjugation of the field last year, much longer, Olympic will test and entertain in different ways.
Along with the likes of Oakmont, Winged Foot, Pinehurst and Shinnecock, it is up there with best.
The USGA have managed to squeeze additional length out of a venue that measured just 6,800 yards last time out but will be 7,170 this month.
Still, by modern Major standards, it is short and there is a valid comparison with Royal Lytham, next month’s Open host.
Still, by modern Major standards, it is short and there is a valid comparison with Royal Lytham, next month’s Open host. At both courses, power will only take you so far and they have their own considerable defences.
At Olympic, few of the par 4s are straight, and often the camber runs against the angle of the dogleg. You need to use a club that goes a certain distance to make sure you hit to the corner and being able to shape your tee shot to suit that particular hole will be a massive advantage.
In other words, stand on one of the left-to-right doglegs with a fairway that takes the ball left and hit a hard draw, and you are unlikely to have a short iron in your hand from the middle of the fairway for your second shot. Just like we saw at Sawgrass last month, aggression is all very well but it must be allied to precise execution.
Apart from having the shortest par-4 closing hole you are ever likely to see at a US Open – it measures just 344 yards – Olympic will also be presented with an imbalance between the two halves in terms of par. Mike Davis, now the USGA’s executive director, has won universal praise for his imaginative course set-ups and he has a new trick up his sleeve.
Previously, the 1st was a short 5 and the 17th a long 4. Those pars have been reversed, with the result that the front 9 has the tightest of pars of 34 while there are back-to-back par 5s at 16 and 17, followed by the short last hole, opening up the possibility of a very fast finish.
“The 16th and 17th are really going to be the swing holes. The 16th has always been a long continuing dogleg left.
“We have made it longer and one of the reasons we did that is just we have felt like we wanted at least two of the four days of the championship to really ensure that this is a three-shot hole.
“That if you miss one of those shots it’s going to be hard to pick up or recover from that shot.
“Then you get to 17. I think this time we wanted to try something a little bit different and say, can we make a short par 5 that is truly risk/reward.
“That makes the player think off the tee, that makes him execute off the tee and then when they’re in the drive zone, they have got to think about, do I want to go for it or not. We’ve put a closely-mown area to the right of the green and behind it. And this happens to be the 17th green, the most severe on the course.