Johnny Miller’s Guide to the Olympic Club

June 2, 2012

Few players know this month's U.S. Open site like Johnny Miller, who grew up playing there. Here's some local knowledge from a true San Francisco giant, including the secret tip he gave Phil.

I've been playing Olympic since I was 12. It's the perfect U.S. Open course because it tests you in so many ways. The air is thick, cold and foggy. It's not long by U.S. Open standards [7,170 yards for this year's event], but there are a lot of doglegs with awkward, hilly lies, and the greens are very small with plenty of slope.

But there's something about Olympic, sort of an invisible hazard, that only Phil Mickelson and I know about — and that's because I'm the one who told him. I only realized this recently. The course has a lot of what I've coined "reverse-bank doglegs."

That means in the fairway you get a hook lie when the hole calls for a cut, or you get a cut lie when you need to hit a draw. So on holes 5, 6, 9, 11 and 14 you have the wrong, awkward stance and lie for the needed shot shape. Guys who don't understand this reverse-bank theory will have trouble. It can throw off approach shots big time, and if you get out of position around the greens at Olympic, it's hard to get up and in. It's why people struggle here. It takes a great iron player to overcome the reverse-bank lies.

At the 1966 Open at Olympic, I tied for eighth as a 19-year-old amateur — not exactly chopped liver. Of course, being a typical teenager, I felt like I could have played better. I felt no one could beat me on my home course. I was naive, but that's how I felt.

Playing with Jack Nicklaus on Saturday on national TV was pretty cool. He was at the height of his powers. We actually played together on that Tuesday in a practice round at Olympic. Then he invited me to play San Francisco Golf Club on Wednesday. I thought, Wow, why play a practice round at San Francisco Club the day before the U.S. Open at Olympic? To this day, I don't know why he did that. But you don't turn down Jack, and playing two rounds with him helped prepare me for Saturday, when it counted. I shot 74, and he shot 69. If I hadn't had those practice rounds, I might have shot an 80 or 82.


No. 16, Olympic Club

Graham Graches
The par-5 16th hole at Olympic will play 670 yards long during the 2012 U.S. Open.

Par 5s aren't usually my favorite, unless they're reachable in two. An exception is No. 16, a legitimate three-shot par 5 without O.B. or water. With big hitters like Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes, you almost never hear of a true three-shot par 5. At 670 yards, no one's hitting the green in two. And don't miss with either of your first two shots, because the fairway's a ribbon, and the hole is almost a triple dogleg. Bubba will hit his big towering shots, but even he can't reach that tiny green in two. I've seen guys reach the front bunker, but I've never seen anybody on in two. It's almost impossible.

I would think the players would like the nice, cool Bay Area weather. I always did. Some people want it hot at the U.S. Open. Well, I remember my last U.S. Open, at Oakmont [in 1994]. It was 102 degrees every day. As a San Francisco boy, I thought I was gonna die. That won't be a problem at Olympic.

I have three regrets from my career — not winning the Masters, and not winning the U.S. Open at Olympic or Pebble. It would have meant a lot winning at one of my "home" courses.

No. 3, Olympic Club

John Mummert/USGA
247-yard par-3 3rd hole at the Olympic Club.


No doubt about it — the first six holes at Olympic Club will be the hardest opening six holes in the history of championship golf. It's off-the-charts tough. No. 1 is a 520-yard par 4, converted from a par 5. With a left-to-right wind coming off the ocean, it will probably average about a 4.7. I predict the field will average at least 3 over par for those first six holes. Getting to the seventh tee at 1- or 2-over is not horrible. There's never been an opening six holes like we'll see this year. It'll be crazy tough!

I'd signed up to caddie in '66. Somehow I got through qualifying and into the U.S. Open. But I was looking forward to caddying, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] I was never that nervous a golfer. My tee time that first day was around noon. I remember my mother having to wake me up at 9 a.m. because I was still sleeping. I guess I had the right kind of insides for USGA golf.

When the Open came back to Olympic in 1987, I was 40 and over the hill with my putting. There was some controversy because a lot of people thought the USGA should have given me an exemption, but I qualified to get in. I was so jazzed to be back at Olympic. I played well early and was near the lead. Then I fell apart a bit. On the 17th hole in the first round, I hit a 1- or 2-iron that caught the left greenside bunker, and I finished double bogey, bogey and missed the cut by a shot. The USGA was right — my game had seen better days. It was one of my most disappointing championships.

He's a control player, a plodder with the iron game and putting to win the U.S. Open. Does he have the insides to overcome the choke factor? I don't know. But the precision irons that Olympic demands bodes well for Luke.

BUBBA WATSON: He's putting great and has a lot of confidence after his Masters win. Olympic is great for guys who cut the ball, and Bubba's left-handed draw will work the same way. He can make hamburger out of a lot of courses, but he'll have to throttle back his big, gambling game with all those doglegs.

PHIL MICKELSON: This might be Phil's last chance to win a U.S. Open. He's won more in California than maybe anyone, even me. He wants that first U.S. Open so much, and you know he'll be prepared. And who knows — after I gave him my tip about the "reverse-bank" theory, maybe that'll put him over the top!

AS FOR TIGER… Tiger disappointed me at the Masters. His whole career, if he was playing well entering a major, he'd play well that week. He was playing great before Augusta, then totally fell apart. It showed me that right now he has the insides of an average player. He's affected by pressure. At Augusta, he basically folded under pressure. It was the first time he'd been playing well, then when the bell rang his game was gone. It was revealing and startling. Welcome to the world of everyone else, Tiger.