The second round of the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club isn't remembered for the dazzling 66 posted by eventual champion Lee Janzen; it's remembered for the dastardly back-left hole location on the 18th green of the Lake Course. Payne Stewart had the lead when he trekked up to the final green on Friday afternoon to face an eight-foot birdie putt. Playing eight inches or so of break, Stewart tapped his right-to-lefter back down the hill and watched incredulously as it rolled…and rolled…and rolled…25 feet below the cup. Gravity and momentum had made a fool out of the beknickered one — and he wasn't alone.
Tom Lehman four-putted the same green. Kirk Triplett banged a putt up the slope only to have it trundle back to his feet. In a Daly-ian fit of frustration, Triplett turned his putter into a backstop, incurring a two-stroke penalty. "Bordering on ridiculous," is how Stewart summed up the hole location. Tom Meeks, then the USGA's setup man, later confessed, "It was a terrible mistake on my part." Fourteen years later, the Open is returning to Olympic, and while the same hole location is likely to be in play at 18, the same teeth-gnashing isn't. Here's why:
1. New Grading
After the 2000 Olympic club championship, then-superintendent John Fleming reconstructed the putting surface at 18, reducing its maximum slope from 6 percent to something in the 1.5 to 2 percent range. That solved one problem but created another. "It was a dull, flat, boring green," says Pat Finle, the club's director of golf course maintenance operations. Adds USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, "The mystique and history associated with the hole, the idea that it would cost you if you hit it above the hole, was gone." So, in 2009, architect Bill Love effected yet another makeover, relying on old course maps and photos to return the green to its original state, albeit with subtle tweaks from the '98 version. He widened the back of the green by 3 to 4 feet on each side to "maximize pin placements," Love says. More important, he also flattened the slope so that the free fall that victimized Stewart would be consigned to history. The new slope is about 4 to 4.5 percent.
2. New Grass
Another change to Olympic's 18th green — and to the other 17 greens as well — is the 2009 switch from poa grass to creeping bentgrass. That's significant, Davis says, because at the '98 Open USGA officials believed that the poa greens would grow and therefore lose pace as the day progressed. They didn't. Bentgrass also better withstands both foot traffic and nematodes (wormlike pests that attack grass roots).
3. New Technology
Meeks relied solely on a Stimpmeter (basically a skinny aluminum ramp and a ball) to measure the speed of Olympic's greens. Davis will employ a Stimp and also a digital level, which will allow him to gauge the slopes. "I'll get out the level when I get there and we'll make certain that we get it right," he says. He expects the greens, including the 18th, to "stimp" at about 11.5 to 12.5, depending on the weather.
4. New Mentality
In the seven years that Davis has been setting up Open venues, his approach has been decidedly fair-minded. You can expect more of the same with how he manages Olympic's greens. "With the older clubs, it's not unusual to face a green that has the potential for trouble because of its slope," Davis says. "Generally, I've always felt that wherever possible, you work your overall green speeds off one green — the green that may provemost problematic. You can't always do that, but you try. And you can always compensate. Either double cut and one roll, or single cut and double roll, add a little water, withhold water, slow 'em all down. It's important to be flexible. Weather is always critical, and I base most of my decisions on that."