Last year a soggy Congressional turned into a one-man runaway. Rory McIlroy threw darts, embarrassed the field and perhaps embarrassed the USGA. The weather can hardly be controlled, but a trip to Olympic could be the perfect remedy. The northern California air has a way of reining in the long hitters as do some of Olympic’s claustrophobic fairways. In addition to that, the early word from Olympic is that the course is already quite firm. It should only become more severe as the week goes on, which will make hitting fairways extremely difficult and should deepen the field of potential winners to even the shortest hitters.
The last time the U.S. Open was played at Olympic was 1998. I was on summer break and at the height of my golf fandom. It was fortuitous that Payne Stewart built himself a lead heading into the final round. His main competition appeared to be Tom Lehman, who was in the middle of a run where he blew the chance to win several US Opens. Lehman played in the final group four straight years and ended up winning ZERO. Payne was four shots ahead of Lehman and Bob Tway with Nick Price and Lee Janzen another shot back. Classic late-90s leaderboard. As contenders started to melt away, Stewart’s position looked even more commanding, especially when Janzen got a ball stuck in a tree on the 5th hole. But as Janzen was walking back to the tee to take his penalty, the ball came loose. Janzen salvaged par and his round.
From there, Payne started leaking a bit of oil. He made a couple of bogeys, he drove his ball into a divot in the middle of the fairway, he was even put on the clock for slow play. He was eventually caught and passed by Janzen and his bid to tie on the 18th came up a few inches of borrow short. Lee Janzen was suddenly a two-time US Open Champion. Both of his wins came at Payne Stewart’s expense. I was physically ill. Now that I know that Payne would come back and win the Open the very next year, the loss doesn’t sting quite as much, but at the time, that afternoon was one of my most disappointing in terms of viewing sport.
Olympic has a way of disappointing, though. Ben Hogan lost there. Arnie Palmer was clipped by Billy Casper. It’s the home of some unlikely champions. It’s where Nathaniel Crosby, Bing’s son, made his unexpected run through the U.S. Amateur. But is the course really a graveyard of champions? Can a handful of results over 40 years really make a trend? Perhaps we’re all due for an epic, blockbuster leaderboard at this year’s U.S. Open. Or perhaps D.A. Points is going to win this thing. Picks coming later, but first, some story lines…
1. The First Six Holes.
There are plenty of golf courses that have tough stretches of holes, but rarely does a world class venue hit you this hard right out of the gate. Often an especially difficult opener is offset by chances for birdie soon after. Think the second and third holes at Augusta National. Olympic makes you wait until the seventh for a realistic birdie opportunity. The first is a converted par-5 that measures 520 yards. It could end up being the hardest hole on the course. After that are four more par 4s that AVERAGE 463 yards and the par-3 third which is listed at 247. Mid-irons and birdie chips could be the theme of the opening six. The challenge will be players being able to accept a 1, 2, 3-over start and trying to bounce back from there. I’d expect to see several rounds spiral out of control early, and I think it might be an advantage to start the 1st round on the 10th hole.
2. Pairings and Controversy?
The USGA is known for manipulating pairings, but they’ve gotten a bit predictable in recent years. They pair Asian players together. They pair long hitters together. American veterans usually find themselves in the same group. The question is, have these made for TV pairings impacted the competitive balance. Two groups stand out in that regard this year. Tiger/Phil/Bubba and Westwood/Donald/McIlroy. Putting Tiger and Phil together is likely to create a nightmare in the gallery. Throwing Bubba into the mix won’t help. Watson has proven to be temperamental at times with the galleries. Mickelson had issues at Memorial and ended up WD’ing–due to “mental fatigue” or to make a statement about the galleries and cellphone policy. Not only will this group have to deal with the sea of people following them, but so will the groups immediately surrounding them in the draw. And, will crowd control further slow the pace of play?
In regard to the top Euros being grouped, I’ve always wondered if knowingly putting players who are comfortable together in the same group is fair to the field. There’s no proof that playing partners affect a player’s score, but even if the advantage is marginal and only mental, I wonder about putting guys together who are so comfortable playing with each other. We know that Tiger doesn’t enjoy playing with Phil. It shouldn’t keep him from contending, but I imagine he’d much rather play with oh, I don’t know…Sean H2O’Hair. Westwood and McIlroy are no longer best of friends, but putting these three Euro Ryder Cuppers together is a great grouping for them.
3. Casey Martin Returns.
Casey Martin, who became famous for his fight against the PGA Tour to ride a golf cart during competition, made it through qualifying and will play in his 2nd US Open. Oddly enough, his first appearance was also at Olympic back in 1998. After going all the way to the Supreme Court, and despite the dissension of many prominent players, Martin was allowed to use a golf cart in competition. Once out on tour, though, Martin struggled to keep his card and he would eventually leave the tour to coach golf at the University of Oregon. He’s had a successful coaching career at Oregon and this week will be his first appearance in a major competition in over a decade. One of the fears of the Martin case from the PGA Tour’s perspective was that the ruling would open up the floodgates and players with less severe disabilities would attempt to gain an advantage by riding a cart. That hasn’t been the case, and about 15 years later, Martin remains the only player to ever ride a cart on the PGA Tour.
4. There’s a Flippin’ 14-yr old Playing.
Andy Zhang is about to become the youngest player ever to compete in the U.S. Open. The 14-year old was the 2nd alternate, but got into the field when both Brandt Snedeker and Paul Casey withdrew this week. Zhang is from Beijing, and breaks Tadd Fujikawa’s mark for youngest competitor. Zhang’s presence will make two prominent American amateurs, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth, feel like elder statesman. Cantlay was in top form at Congressional last year and was one of the main stories supporting Rory’s runaway win. Spieth is a multiple US Junior Am winner, who hasn’t fared as well in professional events outside of his native Texas. The last time the Open was at Olympic, Matt Kuchar was the low amateur, finishing in a tie for 14th. Matching that accomplishment will be a tall order for any of these three, or any of the lesser known amateurs in the field.
The Definitive Top-10:
I’m going to pick Steve Stricker to win, because that feels like an appropriate level of boredom for Olympic, and because he actually played well here in ’98. I think the course will give the wild drivers fits and you’re going to have to get up and down a bunch regardless of how well you’re hitting it. And, of course, putting. Make some putts.
- Steve Stricker
- Lee Westwood
- Jim Furyk
- Justin Rose
- Hunter Mahan
- Sergio Garcia
- Phil Mickelson
- Aaron Baddeley
- Luke Donald
- Jason Dufner
Mailbag will be Thursday around lunchtime this week. So, if you want to keep up the historic momentum from last week go ahead and send in some pictures and questions.