Any lingering memories of last year’s U.S. Open, in which Rory McIlroy won with a record score of 16-under par, probably will be quickly erased when players hit their opening tee shots this week at the Olympic Club.
Their nightmare is not expected to end until they set foot on the seventh tee, about two hours later, where they will be greeted with a drivable 288-yard (263 meter) par-4 hole.
“The first six holes are going to just be brutal,” Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, said in a news conference at the course in late April.
Not even Tiger Woods, the winner of three U.S. Open titles, could argue.
“It’s going to be a hell of a test,” Woods said shortly after winning his fifth Memorial Tournament title two weeks ago. Woods called the opening stretch at the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, the hardest holes “ever to start off a golf tournament.”
Among the players who ventured out for a practice round yesterday, the only disagreement was whether the difficulty would end after six holes. The entire course has been lengthened by 373 yards and each green has been rebuilt, making the putting surfaces firmer and faster.
“It’s always been hard, but now it’s really hard,” said CBS golf analyst Bobby Clampett, a Monterey, California, native who said his first memory of seeing golf played in person came at the Olympic Club at age six.
Unlike the previous four U.S. Opens played at the venue, the course’s 520-yard opening hole, on a slight downhill that slopes gently from left to right, will be played as a par-4 instead of a par-5. There will be no opportunity for players to ease into their rounds.
“That used to be one of the only birdie holes out here, now it’s the hardest hole,” said Spencer Levin, who grew up in Sacramento, California, and had played the course about 10 times before this week.
Levin, making his third appearance in the U.S. Open, was among the players who said the change to a par-4 will make birdies rare and bogeys acceptable.
If players are able -- with the first swing of the day -- to land the ball in the fairway, a second shot from at least 200 yards will be required to reach the green. It’s a quick reminder that this year’s tournament will be much different than McIlroy’s eight-shot victory last year at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.
“We’re definitely going back to the U.S. Open of old,” said U.S. PGA Tour player Kevin Streelman, a Duke University graduate who spent the past two days getting to know the course better.
After the opener, four of the next five holes are par-4s measuring an average of 463 yards. The only par-3 in the opening stretch is the downhill third hole, which will require a tee shot from 247 yards.
“Even a good shot can miss the green,” Levin said.
The Olympic Club’s hillside location also contributes to its difficulty. Many of the 18 holes feature bending, dogleg fairways. Well-struck tee shots will still need a little luck to settle into the short grass. More likely, shots that result in club-twirling confidence on the tee box will produce frustration as the ball rolls down a slope and into the rough, farther away from the hole than expected.
“The thing that makes Olympic Club so difficult is you have a lot of uphill, long iron second shots to greens that are really firm and really fast,” Clampett said. “You’re not going to be able to hold those greens and you’re going to make a lot of bogeys, even if you’re hitting a lot of fairways.”
A year ago, a combination of pre-tournament rain and high temperatures led to soft course conditions at Congressional. McIlroy’s winning score of 268 was the lowest in the event’s 111-year history. In total, McIlroy broke or tied 12 tournament scoring records.
With no rain, cool temperatures and windy conditions in the forecast, there’s little chance those records will be touched this week, McIlroy said.
“Last year was a little bit of an exception,” he said. “This year, if you shoot four 70s you’ll have a great chance.”