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World's top players primed to create classic U.S. Open

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SAN FRANCISCO – If championship venues, like the championships they host, are the sum of their parts, count The Olympic Club as the game’s ultimate buzzkill.

It is, with a monsoon of respect to the Jack Flecks of the major championship world, where great Grand Slam expectations go to die. From Fleck’s stunning upset of Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open to Scott Simpson’s torrid finish in 1987 to clip Tom Watson, the Lake Course may have identified the week’s best player but not the most popular or predictable champion.

Four times the U.S. Golf Association has rolled the greatest show on grass onto the peninsula and each time the golf world came away feeling as if they’d just been punked. The masses wanted Hogan. We got Fleck. Watson was the man of the moment, but Simpson stole the show.


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Yet even as the ubiquitous marine layer engulfed the property early Wednesday it was hard not to imagine that this time would be different. If the ghosts of Olympic Opens past were swirling about the morning fog the buzz on property refused to yield.

Whether it is Tiger Woods’ official return to form two weeks ago at the Memorial, Dustin Johnson’s return from injury last week in Memphis or Phil Mickelson’s hopeful return to another West Coast Open, it’s easy to imagine that this time things will finally go to script.

With so many cosmic tumblers poised not even the Lake Course could make a mess of this marquee, could it?

Even those who call the shots at the USGA sense the change.

On Tuesday, Woods offered the perfect sound bite for the national championship: “It is just the most demanding test that there is in golf,” he said. But this is not your father, or grandfather’s, Olympic Club.

USGA executive director Mike Davis has turned the Lake Course upside down, transforming the first hole, which ranked as the easiest during the ’98 championship as a par 5, into a par 4 and No. 17, which played the toughest in ’98 as a par 4, into a par 5.

There’s a driveable par 4, the 288-yard seventh, an opening six holes that some say will drive players crazy and a closing stretch (Nos. 16-18) that, in theory, could be played in 3 under if the stars were to align properly.

Memorable Opens, however, are defined by the players, not the pitch, and the USGA wasted no time sending out its best lineup.

At 7:33 a.m. PT, Masters champion Bubba Watson will have the best seat in golf when he heads out with Woods and Mickelson, a title bout that would suggest that even the USGA is keen to lift the Lake Course from the throes of mediocrity.

The buildup to Thursday at the Open is always awash with hype, but on Tuesday even Mickelson was getting into the act.

“I get excited to play with Tiger,” Lefty gushed. “I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. . . . (He’s) the one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me.”

Not surprising given his pedestrian record in recent head-to-head duels, most notably this year in the final round at Pebble Beach when Mickelson beat Woods by 11 strokes and the field by two, “Red Shirt” was not as engaged by the high-profile three-ball.

“I don’t think we’re going to talk about a lot,” Woods said. “I think this is the tournament the guys least conversate.”

Not to worry, there will be plenty of talk about the pairing even if the conversation promises to be light inside the ropes. But the opportunity for a long awaited Olympic moment goes well beyond Woods and Mickelson.

On the opposite side of the draw from the Lefty-Tiger Show will be defending champion Rory McIlroy, who after three consecutive missed cuts seemed to find new life, if not the center of the clubface, last week in Memphis. He led after two rounds, struggled on Saturday and tied for seventh at TPC Southwind.

It was progress by any measure for the man who lapped the field last year at Congressional by eight strokes and seamlessly transformed himself from potential superstar to heir apparent.

His current slide aside, McIlroy navigated the eventful 12 months since his major breakthrough with surprising ease and seems at peace with the expectations his play has created, however unrealistic.

“You're not just happy with top-10s anymore, and you're not happy finishing in the top 5. It's a good result, but it's not what you want,” McIlroy said. “Maybe a couple of years ago it would be a step in the right direction and everything is good. But when you get yourself into positions like I did last week you want to finish them off and get wins.”

If the Woods-Mickelson pairing promises to dominate the conversation on Thursday the three-ball of McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald quietly may be the week’s most promising threesome.

Westwood has four top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open, including his 2008 heartbreak at Torrey Pines, and is fresh off a victory last week in Europe; while world No. 1 Donald lapped a deep field last month at the BMW PGA Championship and likely realizes that the relatively short Lake Course may be his best chance to win an Open.

Olympic will also be Mickelson’s last chance to score that coveted California Open, a title that has eluded the San Diego native who has five second-place showings in the national championship.

The next California Open will be in 2019 at Pebble Beach. Mickelson will be 48, maybe not past his competitive expiration date but hardly a legitimate contender. If Lefty is going to land the one title that has painfully eluded him on home soil it’s now or never.

“If you look at my game from 20,000 feet, you'd say, well, that's probably not the best setup for the way he likes to play. And yet five times I've had opportunities, I've come close,” Mickelson said of his Open record. “Could have, should have won a few of those. And it gives me the belief that I can compete and be in contention on Sunday in this tournament.”

Or maybe it’s Woods’ turn to get off a major schnied that stretches back to the 2008 U.S. Open, or McIlroy’s time to become the first back-to-back champion since 1989, or Westwood and Donald’s chance to get on the Grand Slam board.

It is, at least on paper, an embarrassment of riches for 112th U.S. Open, and for some reason it feels like Olympic Club will finally get it right.