Editor’s note: I’m at the Olympic Club in San Francisco all week for the 112th U.S. Open Championship.
The Olympic Club-Lake Course
Architects: Willie Watson, Sam Whiting
Opened in: 1924
Previous U.S. Opens: 1955, 1966, 1987, 1998
ON THE SUNDAY BEFORE THE 1955 U.S. Open, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an aerial photograph of the Olympic Club with a headline that read, “And here’s the course—a terror, start to finish.” With tall, thick rough, tight fairways and 30,000 trees capable of creating darkness on a sunny day, the 1955 version of the Lake Course was, indeed, a terror. First-round scores averaged near 80 and only 14 men cracked an aggregate score of 300, a whopping 20-over par.
In two days, the U.S. Open tees off at the Olympic Club for the fifth time. The 2012 incarnation of the Lake Course is not a terror. It probably won’t strike fear in the hearts of the world’s best players. But they may be fooled, for this Lake Course could be described with another “t” word—trickster.
I walked the back nine late on Monday. In a short while, I plan to hike the front-nine holes. The rough, said to be four inches long, is not intimidating by U.S. Open standards. And at 7,170 yards, Olympic is a short Open course. So what makes it so hard?
The endless slopes and tilting fairways, for one. As noted in the USGA’s 2012 Championship Preview, it’s critical to position tee shots in the right spots, not just anywhere in the fairway, although finding any patch of the short grass is always a good thing in the pressure-filled U.S. Open.
Two, the greens are small and well protected by deep bunkers. I was here once before in 2008. But I had forgotten just how small the putting surfaces are. Whether off the tee or to the green, players will need pinpoint accuracy around this place. If they’re off the mark on approach shots, they’ll face tricky chips and pitches. And nerve-wracking, slick putts to rescue their pars.
The Olympic Club is a shotmaker’s course. There are doglegs left and right. It helps to be able to curve the golf ball both ways on this picturesque layout that borders Lake Merced. Don’t be fooled by the scorecard either. Due to the cool marine air and the possibility of ocean breezes, the Lake Course always seems to play longer than the yardage on the hole signs. Ben Hogan once called it “the longest short course in the world.”
So even though the rough doesn’t look too tough and the course is not lengthy, beware of this par-70 trickster. Pars will be good. Birdies will be hard-earned. And by Sunday (or Monday if a playoff is needed), like Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen before him, the 2012 winner will have survived a difficult test.