Lee Janzen on the best shot from his win at Olympic in 1998, why the course is so tough, and his pick to win this year

Lee Janzen won the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic.
Kevork Djanzesian / AP

Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen won his second title at the Olympic Club, the last time it played host in 1998. He shot a final-round 68 to overcome a seven-shot deficit and beat the late Payne Stewart by a shot.

Since Janzen, 47, is outside of his 10-year past-champion exemption status by four years, he tried to qualify at the sectional in Memphis, but missed out on the playoff for the last spot by four strokes.

The 1998 U.S. Open was pretty memorable one — you came back from seven shots back to beat Payne Stewart, Casey Martin finished T23 riding in motorized golf cart, and Jack Nicklaus made his last cut at a U.S. Open. Since you didn't qualify for this year's event, do you think you should get a special exemption?
I know [1992 U.S. Open winner] Tom Kite would have been exempt in 2000, but he didn't get one in 2010 at Pebble Beach. Scott Simpson, who won at Olympic in '87, got one in '98, and that was one year after his 10-year exemption ran out. If I did get a special exemption, I think they could easily justify giving me one, but if I don't get one, they can justify that, too.

The back pin on the 18th hole during the second round caused quite the controversy with Payne Stewart's 10-foot birdie putt just barely missing and then rolling down the hill 20 feet away. I understand the green was redone so that sort of thing doesn't happen again.
The greens are totally different. I've played it twice since then and both in the fall the past two years. They resurfaced all the greens so it's new grass — it's bent grass now, whereas before it was like a poa annua, which can get bumpy. The new grass is very nice and I think guys will make more putts on them — if they can read them because there's so many trees, there's a lot shade. The whole golf course is built on a side of a hill.

What are some of the changes you've noticed?
This past fall I saw a lot of subtle changes they made. The eighth hole is a pretty big change. The old par 3 was just a 130-yard hole uphill, now it's a 200-yard shot with a crosswind. It will be a much harder par 3. There are new tees on — it seems like — on every hole, about 20-30 yards back. They also lengthened the 16th hole quite a bit. They'll keep the yardage pretty close to what it would have been like in '98 with the advent of technology, but when you're near the ocean on the Pacific side, the ball just doesn't fly as far. Temperatures will be in the 60s. The wind's coming off the ocean, and it's a thicker wind. It'll make the course play a lot longer than what the yardage says. It'll play plenty long.

I've heard the first six holes are one of the most challenging stretches in golf. What's an example or two of why they're so difficult?
The fifth hole is a downhill par 4. Generally a 500 yard par 4 downhill is no big deal for us. That would be driver, 6 iron probably for most guys on Tour. I don't think it is even 500 yards, but it slopes away from you and then turns to the right, so it's a very hard fairway to hit. And some of the holes, the way they curve, it forces you to curve the ball in order to hit the fairway. The sixth hole is one of the holes where you have to work the ball left-to-right in order to hit the fairway. If you draw the ball, it's probably going to go through the fairway unless you hit a club that's really short, and then you'll have such a long shot to the green that you might not be able to hit the green.

How do you think the USGA's graduated-rough concept will affect the set-up at Olympic?
I've been on it without any rough at all, and because of the slope of the fairway, if you happen to hit the ball off line on the low side, it will just run right into the trees, and the trees are so thick that you're not going to hit the ball on the green out of those trees. But when you have thick rough, the ball will stop before it gets to the trees. I would say [the rough] helps    probably over the course of a tournament it will help you with two shots if you stop the ball from going into the trees. I think the trees are more of a problem. I don't know how much rough they're going to grow. We did have record scores last year, and any time we see a record score in the U.S. Open, the next year it's usually pretty brutal.

So you think that the USGA will setup the course extra difficult this year because of Rory McIlroy's 16-under at Congressional last year?
The good news is that because the weather is going to be predictable they can get the course as fast as they want to and they don't have to worry about it burning up in the heat, either. I think it will be really fast and firm, and I think they'll set it up pretty tough and see what happens. I think if the scores are not over par the first two days, maybe they'll move the tees up slightly. I don't think it'll be too ridiculous. I think the course is so tough on its own that they don't have to do a lot to it.

What shot stood out to you most in '98?
When people ask me what's the best shot I ever hit, I tell them the Sunday second shot on 17, the 3 iron I hit onto the green, for all the circumstances. I doubled that hole Friday and Saturday from the fairway. Yeah, from the fairway. And it's a hard fairway to hit. Sunday there I am in the fairway again, and it's uphill, the wind was left-to-right, maybe slightly in. I carried a driver, 3 wood, 4 wood and then a 3 iron, so whatever yardage it was, to hit it onto the front of the green was absolutely the best 3 iron I could hit. And it was off a side hill, uphill lie, which isn't great for guys that miss it    their miss might be a hook. All that considered, it was as good a 3 iron as I could possibly hit. It landed right near the front, and it kicked and ran to the back of the green. I got it on the green and two putted for par, and that was the difference.

You played 17 as a par 4, but this year the USGA changed it so it will be a par 5. How do you think it will play?
It will be reachable [in two as a par 5]. It's all fairway around the green and slopes off severely on the right side of the green, so if you miss the green by an inch to the right, it's going to roll down the hill to where there's pine needles and a couple trees. And it'll be virtually impossible to get up and down from down there. If you miss it left, now you've got the green going away from you. I think what they did is really good. They're giving you a chance to hit the par 5 in two, so you'd better hit two perfect shots on the green, otherwise you'll be scrambling.

Was there a turning point for you on the back nine on Sunday?
We were waiting on the group in front of us on the 12th hole. I went over and stood on the edge of the green on 12 and watched the guys in front of us hit off the 13th tee. I shouldn't say a turning point, but it certainly was very helpful because I watched both of them hit their balls in the middle of the green and they ran right through the green into the rough behind the pin, so I realized I needed to land the ball pretty far short of the pin, which I did, and it rolled up there to about eight feet and I made birdie.

Could you throw out a name or two of players whose game will suit Olympic best?
Matt Kuchar. Before the Masters, we do a pool out here at the club, I looked at all his stats, and I think he's pretty high up there in total driving and ball striking and scrambling. I'm sure he putts well, or well enough. I should have picked him. I don't know why I didn't pick him in the Masters pool, but he played really well there, and it was no surprise he won at the Players Championship. I know he was the low amateur at Olympic [in 1998]. Luke Donald is another guy who does pretty well in all facets, but his short game is really good, which I think always goes well in a U.S. Open. He's a very talented guy. Rory [McIlroy] didn't play well the last few weeks, but I don't think that's a thing that'll last long. He can turn it around very quickly. Olympic is one of those courses where you have to hit the ball a certain distance because of the slope of the fairways. You can't just step up there and bomb it.

I remember seeing you at Q-school in 2010 at Orange County National. I was at the next table with some players who didn't have status and were in the field, and they were in disbelief, saying, "Lee Janzen is right there. A two-time U.S. Open champion and he's playing Q-school, too?" I've also seen you at Monday qualifiers as well. You don't appear to have any sense of entitlement, like you're too good to play them.
In other sports when you get older, if you're still around they just throw you a tie. The good news in golf is if you shoot the scores, you get to play. So it's my own fault that I haven't performed well enough to stay exempt or stay in the top 30, whatever it was that I used to be in. So the only way to get back there is to go do something about it. It wasn't easy because I knew it would also be sort of a distraction and a semi circus there, having to answer the question, why am I at Tour school? There were 179 other guys there that will give you the same answer I would: Because I want to play on the PGA Tour next year. If I don't go, and I just expected tournaments to give me spots, then there would be a lot of tournaments I would have missed out on.