SAN FRANCISCO – If USGA executive director Mike Davis has his way, the record low scores at last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional are unlikely to travel to the West Coast.
Davis said Monday at San Francisco’s majestic Olympic Club that the course will be “the hardest start in a U.S. Open” when players tee off June 14. The unleveled Lake Course in the serene setting just across the street from the Pacific Ocean will play at a par-70, 7,170 yards — 373 yards longer than the last time it hosted the national championship in 1998 — including the 670-yard 16th hole that is one of the longest par 5s in the event’s history.
Windy conditions and the threat of the city’s famous fog also could make the hilly course with fast fairways even tougher.
“I am convinced that this will be the hardest start in a U.S. Open,” Davis said after walking the course on a sun-soaked day along the California coast. “The first six holes are going to just be brutal. I would contend if you play the first six holes 2 over, I don’t think you’re giving up anything to the field.”
In decades past, the usual reaction has been to overcompensate after so many red numbers ended up on the leaderboard.
The best example might’ve come when Johnny Miller shot 63 on a rain-softened Oakmont course in the 1973 U.S. Open. The USGA got even a year later in the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” won by Hale Irwin at 7 over par.
The temptation to restore the “toughest test in golf” certainly has washed up on San Francisco’s shores.
Rory McIlroy finished at 16-under 268 last year on the rain-softened course in Bethesda, Md., the kind of eye-popping digits more likely at a lower-tier PGA Tour stop. Runner-up Jason Day of Australia shot 8 under, and 20 players finished under par — all of which the USGA blames more on unexpected rain than anything else.
Consider: Day’s score would have been enough to win 46 of the previous 50 U.S. Opens and force a playoff in three others. And in the previous six national championships, seven players total finished under par.
The challenge for the USGA is finding a balance between maintaining its standards and turning the tournament into a gimmick.
“We don’t want to see well executed shots penalized,” Davis said. “When setting up a course as tough as the U.S. Open, it’s really splitting hairs sometimes of not actually doing that. Our goal is to test the players mentally, physically, and test their shot-making skills.”
The course, still months away from being U.S. Open ready, is on pace to do just that.
More than half of the holes have doglegs, including four where the fairways — many some of the most narrow anywhere — will go in opposite directions. The elevation constantly changes — mimicking those steep rises from the city’s hills in the distance — and the unleveled lies could prove particularly perplexing.
The front nine will play at a par 34 and the back nine a par 36. The first hole is now a par 4 and the 17th a par 5; the eighth hole, once one of the easiest on the course, is entirely new from 1998 — with little room for error along the right-side trees.
The par-5 17th can play as long as 670 yards on the back tees, which Davis expects to happen “at least two days.” The longest hole in Open history is the 667-yard par-5 12th in 2007 at Oakmont, according to the USGA.
“I’m going to try to park my cart and watch that hole,” Davis said of the 17th. “Probably hide when I’m doing it, but nonetheless, I think it’s going to be a very, very exciting hole.”
Olympic has historically been more famous for the stars that have lost than won.
The place “where champions go to die,” as some call it, saw Arnold Palmer lose a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper with nine holes to go in 1966. Jack Fleck also beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff at Olympic in 1955, the first of four previous times the club hosted the U.S. Open. And Scott Simpson won by a stroke over Tom Watson in 1987.
“My predecessor’s predecessor, which was Frank Hannigan, I read a quote of his, and he said, `Something always magical seems to happen at Olympic,”’ Davis said. “There is something magical about it.”