U.S. Open is up for grabs due to treacherous Olympic Club course

Nowadays when you are talking about who to beat in a major golf tournament, names like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson are sure to enter the conversation. But when the 112th U.S. Open kicks off on ESPN and NBC Thursday (see full TV schedule here), the biggest obstacle won’t be the players but the course itself.

The U.S. Open prides itself on challenging — and punishing — the world’s best golfers, but that was hardly the case a year ago when McIlroy took advantage of favorable weather conditions to obliterate the defenseless course and field at Congressional Country Club. The Olympic Club in San Francisco won’t be nearly as forgiving this week. In fact, with some experts claiming that the first six holes are the toughest stretch in all of golf, a score over par might very well win the whole thing.

Watson, who comes in as one of the favorites after winning the Masters in April, said in a press conference this week that there is the potential for things to get ugly in a hurry.

“The way it’s set up, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “I don’t want to come out here and shoot 80. Every hole there’s something around the corner. Even the shortest hole is tough to the longest hole is tough. There’s something on every hole that can get you. It makes it very difficult. That’s a nice PC way that I can say it.”

Of course it doesn’t help that golfers are greeted on the first tee with a 520-yard hole that is now a par-4 after being a par-5 when the Open was last played there in 1998. And as intimidating as that might seem, it’s still not as scary as the 670-yard, par-5 at #16. Throw in the challenging par-3 at 13, and you can see why the course is already in the head of many competitors.

“You have to curve it more off the tees here than any other golf course that we play,” said Woods. “Even to the greens, you’ve got right-to-left slopes of, let’s say right-to-left slopes of fairways and greens, and you have to cut it, so you’re going against the grain. It’s the same thing on the flip side. That’s the neat thing about this golf course is it seems like the majority of the doglegs kind of run away from you. And it puts a big premium on shaping the ball. But also it puts a big premium on game planning, what you want to do, where you want to hit it. And being committed to that.”

Making things even more interesting tomorrow and Friday will be watching Woods, Mickelson and Watson playing in the same group. Although Tiger tried to downplay the significance of the threesome, he did admit to being a fan of Watson’s game.

“I’ve never seen a guy shape the ball as much as he does in this generation of players,” he said. “We saw it a little bit with Chi Chi [Rodriquez], but the movement with his ball is pretty impressive. You’ve got to have a lot of speed and he does. And when he decides to flatten it out and not shape it, I don’t think there’s anybody can keep up with him out here.”

Mickelson, meanwhile, said in this week’s presser that playing with Tiger inspires him to play better.

“I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it,” Mickelson admitted. “I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it’s time to tee off on Thursday I’ll be ready to play. Second is, the one player I’m most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger.”

The key this week is keeping the ball in play off the tee and staying away from the crooked numbers. That’s easier said than done on a course like The Olympic Club, which is why accurate drivers are more likely to be atop the leader board Sunday afternoon. Because Woods, Watson and Mickelson have a tendency to be erratic off the tee, it wouldn’t surprise me to see somebody like McIlroy, Lee Westwood or Luke Donald walk away with the title — especially when you factor in that six of the last eight winners have been foreign.

Then again, as we have learned in the past, nothing is a given at the U.S. Open.