SAN FRANCISCO – The famous U.S. Open venues all have their hallmark traits that strike fear in golfers.
Oakmont Country Club induces four-putts on its diabolically sloped greens. Just holding approach shots on the humpback greens at Pinehurst No. 2 is an accomplishment. Torrey Pines South Course and Bethpage Black are massively long – Kryptonite to short hitters. And Pebble Beach’s oceanside beauty has its own off-the-cliff consequences.
The Olympic Club Lake Course differs from all of those. Its tee-to-fairway, fairway-to-green, and green-to-the-hole three-step might be the most formidable in all of major championship golf.
“Oakmont was probably the toughest course I’ve ever seen – the way it was set up,” reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson said. “I think here matches it, maybe a little bit tougher.
“Every hole has something to it that makes it very difficult.”
He’s talking about the tilt of the course. The Olympic Club (Lake Course) was built into the side of a giant sand dune just east of the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, level lies are found only on the clubhouse deck.
“More than any other U.S. Open course we go to, it doesn’t require shaping on every shot, but if you can work the ball both ways – left-to-right and right-to-left – you get a real advantage,” said Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association – and the man responsible for setting up the U.S. Open championship.
A breakdown of the course:
Tee shots: Because the golfers face constantly undulating fairways, they can’t get comfortable hitting to what they often cannot see.
“There are some pretty intimidating-looking tee shots,” said Casey Martin, the University of Oregon golf coach who made it into the field this week – and also played here in 1998.
Adding to the constant uneasiness is the USGA’s edict of building – and moving around – tee boxes. Nine new tee areas have been built here since the 1998 U.S. Open.
The two that seem to have the players talking the most are at the first and 17th holes. The new first tee completely changed the dynamic of the course’s opening stretch.
In the past, the first hole was an attackable par-5 hole – a breather right out of the gate. For this championship, it has been made a par 4 at roughly the same distance – 520 yards.
Suddenly, the opening hole is a bear. And the next five holes follow suit.
“I have never seen a golf course that hits you so hard in the front, and then gently lays off,” said Frank Nobilo, a Golf Channel analyst who played the 1998 U.S. Open as a PGA Tour regular. “This is going to be the toughest opening six holes in major championship history.”
This week, the lengthened 17th hole – once the back nine’s biggest terror as a par 4 – will suddenly encourage birdie-making as the reachable second of back-to-back par-5 holes.
Approach shots: The fairways are a riddle. They slope in one direction while the hole usually curves in the opposite direction.
“It seems like the ball just runs through these doglegs, with as much slope as there is on the fairways and as fast as these are,” Tournament Players champion Matt Kuchar said.
Players who land on the fairway will find a lie on an upslope, a downslope or a sidehill. What he won’t find is a lie on flat ground.
“This sort of sets itself apart (from other U.S. Open venues),” England’s Lee Westwood said, “because of the severity of the fairways.”
The challenge is not only hitting a golf ball from that position, it is also getting the body stabilized enough on uneven footing to strike it cleanly.
That was an obvious physical concern heading into this week for Tiger Woods, who has had knee and leg issues since his dramatic U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008.
He addressed it Tuesday with reporters.
“Finally a non-issue,” Woods said.
Short game: These aren’t the greens Jack Fleck or Lee Janzen won U.S. Opens on. Considerable changes have occurred.
In the past 18 months, course superintendent Pat Finlen and his crew completely changed the grass on the greens, converting them from puffy poa annua to smooth bent grass.
Putts should hold their line, but the drawback is that once the course gets dry and firm, the green speeds will increase dramatically.
“Three-putts,” Watson said, “are right around the corner.”
Also, pivotal areas around the greens have been reshaped. Dropoffs have been mowed so errant shots release down a bank, and are more severely penalized.
Welcome to the toughest collective test in major-championship golf.
“This,” Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley said, “is built for men.”email@example.com