U.S. Open course a 'brutal' task

The U.S. Open trophy rests on the 18th teebox at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif. (EZRA...

The U.S. Open trophy rests on the 18th teebox at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif. (EZRA SHAW/Getty Images/AFP)

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:43 PM ET

Remember last year's U.S. Open?

It was the one that could have been mistaken for the John Deere Classic the way everyone was firing at the stick and knocking down birdies.

It was the one where Rory McIlroy became the second consecutive Northern Irishman to win the major, following Graeme McDowell's 2010 triumph at Pebble Beach, but his score was a sizzling 16-under-par, a figure never before seen in the event's 111-year history.

It was the one where the rain turned Congressional into a shooting gallery, and the toughest test in golf became one of the easier ones.

Well, that was last year's U.S. Open.

This is this year's U.S. Open.

And it's not going to be as pretty. Not even close.

The United States Golf Association returns its national championship this week to San Francisco's Olympic Club, where in 1998 the course wreaked havoc on everyone not named Lee Janzen. He won his second and final U.S. Open by erasing a seven-stroke deficit in the final round to beat Payne Stewart by a stroke.

This year's tournament on the Lake Course promises to be just as gruelling, if not more so. In fact, USGA executive director Mike Davis sent a warning to the competitors months ago.

"I am convinced that this will be the hardest start in the U.S. Open," Davis said in February. "The first six holes are going to just be brutal. I would contend if you play the first six holes two over, I don't think you're giving up anything to the field."

The first hole is 520 yards. It's a par-4. Gulp!

"If you drive the ball in the rough the first six holes you could find yourself four or five over par very easily," Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champ and ESPN analyst, said earlier this week.

If that's not scary enough, this year's U.S. Open will feature the longest

par-5 in the event's history. The 16th will have the ability to play a whopping 670 yards, and the course will be 373 yards longer than it was in 1998. This year, the Lake Course will check in at 7,170 yards and play as a par 70.

"That's why the three of us don't try to qualify for the Open anymore," another two-time champ, Curtis Strange, once said of he, North and Paul Azinger. "The worst thing that could happen is we would make it."

Throw in the monstrous hills, the ridiculously tight and sloping fairways, the heavy sea level air and the breeze that will no doubt be coming off the Pacific Ocean, which is right across the street, and the chances of seeing 16 under again are about as good as escaping from nearby Alcatraz.

Even par will probably be a solid score, which is what Janzen won with in 1998. In fact, only three of the last seven U.S. Open champs have been under par. It's a survival of the fittest, and there aren't a lot of players who are coming to the City by the Bay with their games in tiptop shape.

Tiger Woods is coming off a victory at the Memorial, but his play has yet to be described as consistent. Jason Dufner would have to be considered the hottest golfer on the planet, with two wins and a runner-up showing in last four starts, but his best finish in the U.S. Open is a tie for 33rd two years ago. McIlroy is struggling, and another perennial favourite, four-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, shot 79 in the first round at the Memorial and withdrew.

That sound you hear is Olympic Club licking its chops.

"If you look at the guys who won there, they're all great drivers of the golf ball, particularly at the time that they won there," North said. "This is a golf course you better be able to put the ball on the fairway. If you don't you aren't going to win. Bottom line."

CANADIAN CONTENT

He waited until the last minute, but Stephen Ames made sure there will be a Canadian presence at the U.S. Open.

Ames, a Trinidad and Tobago native who lives in Calgary and has dual citizenship, was one of nine qualifiers at a sectional qualifying tournament in Tennessee last Tuesday. The tournament was delayed by rain for a day, so Ames was technically one of the last players to get into the 156-player field.

This will be the 10th U.S. Open appearance for Ames, whose best finish in the tournament was a tie for ninth at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., in 2004.

Ames tied for 10th at the 2009 U.S. Open in, missed the cut in 2010 and didn’t play in the tournament last year.

Ames has struggled on the PGA Tour this year, making just five of 12 cuts. He has $165,603 in earnings, which leaves him 169th on the money list.

GREEN MONSTER ON 18

One of the lasting memories from the 1998 U.S. Open is not a good one.

The 18th hole location during the second round left many players cursing as they headed for the scoring tent, and rightly so. The slope was simply too severe and the green was too fast, which resulted in eight-foot putts turning into 25-footers coming back up the hill. Four-putts were not uncommon.

The good news is the green has been fixed in the last 14 years. Twice, actually.

The first time, the course superintendent made the green too flat. That apparently didn’t sit well with the members, because they found the putting surface boring. So in 2009 a little bit of slope — but not too much — was put back in the green, making it just right.

The Lake Course greens have also been switched from poa to creeping bentgrass.

So while the pros this week still don’t want to be above the hole on 18, they won’t have to watch painfully as the ball slides all the way down towards the front of the green.

THE CONTENDERS

Tiger Woods

World Rank: 4th
Money List: 7th
Odds: 3-1

Why? Because he's Tiger, and even though he's gone four years without a major win, he has never really left the scene and is coming off a clutch win at the Memorial. In his last four U.S. Open starts, including one after his off-course problems, his finishes have been T4, T6, 1 and T2.

Jason Dufner

World Rank: 9th
Money List: 1st
Odds: 6-1

There is no hotter golfer on the planet right now, no matter what Tiger supporters might say. He has two wins and a second-place finish in his last four starts. He also lost last year's PGA Championship in a playoff, so he can deal with the pressure.

Phil Mickelson

World Rank: 12th
Money List: 8th
Odds: 10-1

He has to win it one of these years. Lefty has either finished second all by himself or tied for second in four of the last 10 U.S. Opens. His game isn't exactly at its best these days, but he's still one of the game's top threats.

Lee Westwood

World Rank: 3rd
Money List: 26th
Odds: 20-1

He has been hovering on the leaderboard at nearly every major over the last four years, with two top 10 finishes in each of 2009, 2010 and 2011. He tied for third at last year's U.S. Open and this year's Masters. He is the best player without a major, so maybe it's time.

Luke Donald

World Rank: 1st
Money List: 12th
Odds: 30-1

Even though his best U.S. Open finish is a tie for 12th six years ago, there is a level of consistency that comes with being the top-ranked golfer in the world. He is the most accurate driver of the ball among the favourites, and that could help him greatly.

Rory McIlroy

World Rank: 2nd
Money List: 6th
Odds: 40-1

It's always tough to defend a title, but McIlroy is young enough that maybe he doesn't let things like that bother him. The substantial difference this year is McIlroy's game isn't at the level it was at when he crushed the field last year at Congressional.

Bubba Watson

World Rank: 5th
Money List: 3rd
Odds: 50-1

He's the only player in the field who will be motivated to win the Grand Slam. The Masters champ has played only twice since winning his first green jacket, which is probably a good thing considering all the press he's done.

He'll be under the radar, too, playing the first two days with Woods and Mickelson.


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