Friday, June 22, 2018

Course makes U.S. Open most difficult week of the year for PGA Tour golfers

Just about every week on the PGA Tour, players make golf look like an easy game. Almost as if they know something the rest of us hackers don't.

This is not one of those weeks. The U.S. Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, likes to make this week the most difficult of the year for those fortunate enough to qualify.

Super slick greens, narrow fairways, and typically thick rough will haunt players at every turn of San Francisco's Olympic Club. And after Rory McIlroy's record setting 16-under at last year's Open, the USGA is in no mood to see a repeat.

"As of right now, I don't like it,'' reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson said after getting his first look at the course. "I don't want to come out here and shoot 80.''

There could be more 80s this week than 60s. Birdies will be few and far between. Kind of like our rounds at the local municipal course.

Good luck, guys.

Five storylines

1. Will Tiger Woods win another major?: With his win at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, many believe he will. But consider this: He also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March before playing the Masters, where he finished tied for 40th. In fact, the past six times Woods won the tournament before a major he did not win the major. None of that dissuades experts from picking Woods.

"It's so hard to predict the winner in golf because any given week there's a number of players who could win, especially in the PGA tour now,'' said Hank Haney, Woods' former teaching pro. "Having said that, if I'm betting — and I always bet on the best player — right now I think you have to look and say given his history, given his record, given the way he played last week, you have to say that Tiger Woods would be the favorite to win that tournament.''

2. Can McIlroy repeat?: The last repeat champion was Curtis Strange in 1988-89, so history is against McIlroy. And he almost certainly won't match his 16-under total at Congressional last year. McIlroy missed three straight cuts before his tie for seventh last week at the St. Jude Classic. Even though he is only 23-years-old, McIlroy has a knack of playing well in majors.

3. Will the winner be seeing red?: Red as in under par. The consensus among players and analysts is that if somebody does shoot under par to win, it won't be by much. And shooting over par to win the U.S. Open is not unprecedented.

"I still think that if some guy shoots, best case scenario, four 69s, that will most likely win it easily,'' NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller said. "There won't be any 16 under pars this week, I can tell you that.''

4. Will history repeat itself?: The four previous winners at The Olympic Club were lesser known players who came from behind to beat legends. Jack Fleck beat out Ben Hogan in a playoff in 1955. Billy Casper did the same to Arnold Palmer in 1966. Scott Simpson tracked down Tom Watson in 1987. Lee Janzen came from seven shots down to beat Payne Stewart in 1998.

All of the previous winners at Olympic Club won by either one shot or in a playoff. History says this tournament is wide open.

5. How will Casey Martin play?: You remember Casey Martin. In 2001, he won a Supreme Court ruling to use a golf cart during competition. Martin, who has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare circulatory condition in his right leg, didn't last long in professional golf. For one week, however, he is back. Now the golf coach at Oregon, Martin, 40, got in through sectional qualifying and tees off at 12:45 p.m. He will be using a cart and has been assigned a cart caddie. Martin played in the U.S. Open in 1998 when it was held at the Olympic Club.

Five players to watch

1. Tiger Woods: If he's in the tournament, he's a player to watch. Woods' last major title was the 2008 U.S. Open, and long courses don't bother him. This could be the week for a 15th major.

2. Jason Dufner: He has won twice and finished second once in his last four tournaments. Dufner, 35, sits atop the money list with $3.8 million. No player on Tour is hotter than Dufner, but he has yet to win a major.

3. Rory McIlroy: He set a U.S. Open record last year by shooting a 16-under-par at Congressional in Maryland. The Olympic Club is a completely different beast, but McIlroy has a way of surfacing for majors.

4. Phil Mickelson: He has been a runner-up in the U.S. Open five times. His window of opportunity gets narrower every year. Mickelson, who turns 42 on Saturday, dropped out of the Memorial due to mental exhaustion. If he's healthy, he could be in contention.

5. Bubba Watson: The Masters champ, Watson is a self-taught country boy who hits it a mile. Kind of like John Daly without all the drama. Is his crazy length and creative shotmaking suited for the Olympic Club? Probably not, but it will be fun to see how he does.

The Olympic Club

The club itself was established in 1860 and the Lake Course was originally designed in 1924. It was redesigned in 1927 after storm damage and has undergone only minimal renovations since. The course has over 30,000 trees, no water hazards and just one fairway bunker. Also, the San Andreas fault line runs underneath the course.

"The course is in great condition, the best it's ever been,'' said Miller, who grew up playing at the Olympic Club.

Open to all

The U.S. Open is truly an open tournament. Anyone with a low enough handicap and enough talent can theoretically qualify. Because of that policy, there are always some interesting players who make the field. Here are some of them:

Andy Zhang: At 14, he is the youngest to ever play in the U.S. Open. Zhang, a native of China who attends the IMG Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, got into the field when Paul Casey withdrew on Monday with a shoulder injury. He was a second alternate after losing a playoff at the sectional qualifier at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto. When not at the Leadbetter Academy, Zhang resides in Reunion, outside of Orlando.

"This is the best feeling I've ever gotten,'' Zhang said about qualifying.

Dennis Miller: Not the comedian. Miller, 42, is a club pro from Youngstown, Ohio, who qualified for the Open on his 12th try. He had to endure a four-player, four-hole playoff and made a long putt from the fringe on the final hole that hung on the lip before finally falling.

Brooks Koepka: The Florida State senior helped lead the Seminoles to the NCAA national tournament a week before qualifying for the U.S. Open. He plans on turning pro after this week.

Brian Gaffney: The club pro from New Jersey is 41 and making his first U.S. Open appearance. He's played in PGA Championships in the past but never been able to qualify for this tournament.

Darron Stiles: The former Gulf High School graduate has been banging around the PGA and Nationwide Tour for years. Now 39, Stiles made it through qualifying. He made the cut at the 2003 U.S. Open.

Marquee group

12:33 p.m.: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. There will be a huge crowd following this group. And don't expect a lot of chatter between shots.

"It's going to be like Sunday at the Masters,'' Watson told reporters on Tuesday.

By the numbers

14: Winners in the past 14 major tournaments.

23: U.S. Opens played by Davis Love III, after he survived sectional qualifying this year. He has played in the most U.S. Opens of anybody in the field.

156: Players in the field (including eight amateurs).

670: Yards of the par 5, 16th hole, making in the longest in U.S. Open history.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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