Olympic ready to dish out more US Open surprises

June 9, 2012 - 4:39 PM
US Open Olympic Golf

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 9 -10 - FILE - In this June 20, 1966, file photo, Billy Casper reacts when he ran a 25-foot putt into the cup on the 11th green for a birdie 3 during his playoff against Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Open golf tournament at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. As Olympic prepares to host golf's national championship for the fifth time, matching the club's memorable moments of the past might be the toughest part. (AP Photo/File)

Nothing ever turns out the way anyone expects when the U.S. Open goes to The Olympic Club.

Instead of a record fifth U.S. Open for Ben Hogan, Olympic delivered Jack Fleck in one of golf's biggest upsets. Arnold Palmer turned his pursuit of a record score into a royal collapse. Tom Watson had his heart broken in San Francisco when Scott Simpson ran off a late string of birdies.

The way this year is unfolding, Olympic seems like the ideal location.

Hardly anything has gone according to plan.

Tiger Woods already has won twice this year, most recently last week at the Memorial with a ball-striking clinic and a chip shot that brought back some of that magic. That made him the betting favorite to end his four-year drought in the majors with a record-tying fourth U.S. Open.

Only it's not that simple.

Two months ago, Woods won Bay Hill by five shots and became an instant favorite at the Masters. Instead of slipping on the green jacket, he turned in his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National, starting the worst three-tournament stretch of his career.

"He goes to the Masters and he fell apart because of nerves for the first time in his career," Johnny Miller said. "So I don't know what to think of Tiger Woods at the Open. I don't know if that was learned from Augusta, or something he can't control."

Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, returned to No. 1 in the world just over a month ago and looked like the player to beat until the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland missed three cuts, threw a club and suddenly looked lost.

Rickie Fowler, finally a winner on the PGA Tour, was poised to take his popularity to new heights until he shot 84 at Muirfield Village playing in the second-to-last group with Woods. Phil Mickelson played in the last group of the Masters and fell out of contention when Lefty hit consecutive shots from the right side. The green jacket went to another lefty, Bubba Watson, a big hitter who never liked the notion that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Golf is difficult to predict even in steady times. There's no telling what to expect when the 112th U.S. Open returns to The Olympic Club on June 14-17 for the fifth time. History would suggest there are more surprises in store on the golf course built on the side of a hill just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"You think about the past national Opens here that have been played ... and in some ways you think, 'Geez, you remember more about who didn't win — what great legend didn't win an Open here — versus who did win,'" USGA executive director Mike Davis said.

Adding to the intrigue is the parity that has taken over golf over the last few years. Ever since Padraig Harrington ended the 2008 season with consecutive majors, 14 players have won the last 14 majors.

Predictions, anyone?

Perhaps the only safe bet is that Olympic won't be a pushover.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records last year at Congressional when he reached double figures under par before he even finished his second round. Because of soft conditions from rain earlier in the week, he finished at 268 to break the record 72-hole record by four shots, and his 16-under par was four better than Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.

The USGA didn't lose much sleep when Woods finished at 12-under 272 at Pebble Beach because no one else was under par and he won by 15.

Congressional was different. McIlroy won by eight shots, but 20 players broke par, the most since 1990 at Medinah, a par 72.

Remember, the year after Johnny Miller shot 63 to win at Oakmont in 1973, the U.S. Open was as tough as ever. Hale Irwin finished at 7-over par and still won by two shots at Winged Foot.

Payback time? Davis almost guaranteed a tougher U.S. Open, though not from anything the USGA has cooked up.

"We're trying to make it the toughest test of the year. It didn't happen last year," Davis said. "I would say most of that was caused by Mother Nature. What most people don't understand is that it doesn't matter how you set up a course. If you give them the ability to know when the ball lands it's going to stop, it's significantly easier.

"That's what is going to make the U.S. Open this year — without us trying to retaliate — that much harder," he said. "When the ball lands, whether it hits the green or in the fairway, it's going to roll. You have to think about what happens when it lands."

Miller was a junior member at Olympic as a teenager, and he was low amateur in 1966 the year Billy Casper chased down mistake-prone Palmer. He knows what to expect from Olympic, with its tight fairways that bend one way and slope another, and its tiny greens.

"Congressional, it was a good course, but it was almost like a tour course," Miller said. "You looked at the scores that were be being shot, it was like playing on a good, strong tour course. This is a whole different ball game, and more like being back at a U.S. Open. ... It's not going to be so much fun and games out there. It's going to be hard work, and I think a sterner test.

"Rory basically won waltzing around there like it was no big deal," he said. "I just don't see Olympic Club ... being something easy for anybody."

Woods recently played a practice round and was amazed to see a 9-iron hit the green and bounce as high as the top of the flagstick. Olympic is nearly 200 yards longer than when Lee Janzen won at even-par 280 in 1998. Some of the fairways have been shifted. The greens have been resurfaced. The 520-yard opening hole is now a par 4, while the 522-yard 17th hole is now a par 5. An additional tee was built on the par-5 16th hole, making it 670 yards, the longest hole in U.S. Open history.

"It's going to be a hell of a test," Woods said.

Then again, that's that the U.S. Open is supposed to be.

"When they set courses up tough, firm and fast, you're put to the test emotionally," former British Open champion Stewart Cink said. "Hanging in there becomes a big challenge. The task feels insurmountable, unattainable. Olympic is a good example. They have fairways sloping one way or the other, and eventually it start to feel like you're outmatched."

Congressional was an exception last year because of the rain, though hardly anyone would complain about the quality of winner it produced.

McIlroy, a 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with that unique combination of power and balance, had been trending in this direction. He shot 63 at St. Andrews the summer before. He led wire-to-wire at the Masters last year until imploding in the final round. But he showed resiliency in bouncing back with a performance unrivaled to win the U.S. Open and become the youngest major champion since Woods won the Masters in 1997 at age 21.

Comparisons to Woods, who already had won 10 majors and the career Grand Slam twice before turning 30, can be dangerous. McIlroy is finding that out the hard way, especially after missing the cut three times in a row. The last weekend off at least gave him time to see Olympic before arriving for his title defense, and then he headed to Tennessee for the St. Jude Classic, adding the tournament with hopes of getting back into form.

Woods' form couldn't be any better. The question is how long it will last.

He is desperate to win his 15th major and get back on track in pursuit of the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus. But he's not the only player in dire need of a major. Luke Donald is going on his 47th week at No. 1 in the world, longer than all but five players in the 25-year history of the ranking. All that's missing is a major. Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker head the list of best without a major, along with Sergio Garcia.

Phil Mickelson holds the wrong kind of U.S. Open record — five times a runner-up, more than anyone.

Don't be surprised if Woods or Mickelson get into contention. And don't be surprised if they lose out to someone not quite as famous.

Olympic has a knack for doing that in the U.S. Open.

The four U.S. Open champions at Olympic combined for seven majors in their career. The four players who were runner-up combined for 27.