In looking at this year’s U.S. Open, there are two things about Olympic Club that must be considered in handicapping the outcome.
First, the course is basically built on the side of a hill.
Second, the history of U.S. Opens at Olympic is the history of major disappointment for Hall of Fame talents.
Taking the latter first and working back in time, the last championship in 1998 was Payne Stewart’s to lose, and he did. Going into the final round, Stewart had a commanding four-stroke lead and two major wins under his belt. But it was Lee Janzen who picked up his second Open win coming from seven off the pace.
In 1987, Tom Watson was the former U.S. Open Champion who took a lead into Sunday, and it was journeyman Scott Simpson who passed Watson with two birdies early in the final nine and posted a one shot win.
If those two editions were noteworthy, the first two were historic.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer was battling Jack Nicklaus for supremacy in the game. After three rounds, his lead was three over Billy Casper, a proven winner and a former U.S. Open Champion himself. Palmer built his lead to seven with nine to play and then authored the greatest collapse in Open history, tying Casper and losing the next day in a playoff.
Janzen, Simpson and Casper were established talents on the PGA Tour when they collected their titles. The same cannot be said about the first Olympic U.S. Open. Ben Hogan was sitting in the locker room confident that he had won the U.S. Open in 1955 when he learned that somebody named Jack Fleck had birdied the last four holes to tie him and a shocked Hogan never regained control the next day in a playoff.
So you might want to look to the “B” list to find this year’s winner. But why? Consider the uniqueness of the Olympic terrain.
Among the favorite tourists stops in San Francisco is Lombard Street, advertised as the ‘crookedest’ street in the world. Olympic may not be Lombard crooked but it has that feel. On the tee at many of the holes at Olympic, the green lies just around the bend. Expect to hear the phrase “shaping shots” through the four days of the telecasts.
But if all that ‘short’ Olympic had to serve up was doglegs it would still be an easy touch for today’s bombers. The secret to Olympic is not in the turns. It’s in the tilt. Hitting the fairways will be a challenge in this year’s Open. Keeping the ball in the fairways once you hit them is the key. It is common on the course to find sloping fairways that fall away from the turns making accuracy a moving target and perhaps negating the power hitters in the field.
Add to all this the switch to bent grass on Olympic’s greens — for the first time in five Opens – and the course will be much more the story than Congressional a year ago.
Then there is one hunch to factor in picking a winner this year, and that falls to a little bit of luck.
There is a consensus that the opening six holes at Olympic are the sternest test in recent U.S. Open history. They are considered a survival test. That test is best taken after the exam has been handed out to others. The field will follow the split nine format of recent U.S. Opens on the first two days (actually the ninth hole will be the starting hole for the back nine flight because of where eight green finishes.) There is good reason to believe that early success in majors keeps you in the hunt on the weekend and getting a back nine draw on the first day could set the tone for the week.
If I was making a major wager, I would want to pull from the back nine flights and even more preferably from the late/early combo for Thursday and Friday because the morning coastal layer moves out in the afternoon letting the ball fly a little more.
Using all this mad science of history and topography, I will spend my first day tracking a group other that the TV Holy Trinity of Woods, Watson and Mickelson. My eyes will be on Martin Kaymer, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose, with an afterthought of Matt Kuchar. They have that Fleck, Casper, Simpson profile that Olympic seems to love.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX Radio in St. Louis. A veteran reporter, Reardon is closing in on his 100th major championship covered for KMOX. He can be heard throughout the week on “America’s Sports Voice.”