Golf’s toughest test? Olympic Club aced it this week

Olympic featured only one fairway bunker, no water hazards, and rough that produced mostly manageable lies.
Robert Beck/SI

SAN FRANCISCO — "Do you think the course was a little tricked-up?"

That was a question I got from a golf fan on Sunday afternoon, while the Lake Course was making monkeys out of guys named Tiger and Phil. The fan immediately added, "You know, for a major."

"For a major, no," I replied, taking no time for reflection. And then I looked up at a high-def screen and saw a frustrated Graeme McDowell bite the head of his mallet putter. And then I saw Ernie Els, "the Big Easy," practically pop his navel gouging an iron out of the rough. And then I saw Jim Furyk, one of the game's straightest shooters, hit a rope-hook 3-wood from the 16th tee to a potential arboretum on the shores of Lake Merced. ("A disaster swing," murmured a TV voice.)

I took in those three events and produced my most beatific smile. "No," I repeated, "The course is not tricked-up. Not in my opinion, anyway."

I'm paid to be opinionated, but let me tack on an unsolicited viewpoint: This week's course setup, authored by USGA executive director Mike Davis, was probably the best in U.S. Open history. (The Myopia Hunt Club was a bear in 1901, but my memory of that setup is a bit hazy.) The U.S. Open is supposed to be the stiffest and most comprehensive examination of golfing skill, and that's exactly what we got at the Olympic Club: a great test.

The fan and I could argue, I suppose, over the term "tricked up." To me, a tricked-up course is one that has an island green, an island fairway, and island port-a-potties. A tricked-up hole has water on the left, O.B. on the right, and a line of timber bulkheads running up the fairway. A tricked-up green is swathed in 8-inch collar grass, has more tiers than a Japanese driving range, and hasn't been watered in a month.

Does that sound like Davis's Olympic setup? No, it does not. The Lake Course featured only one fairway bunker. There were no water hazards. And while there were patches of deep, green rough, most wayward shots left the ball in a manageable lie. I saw very few lateral pitches to the fairway with a wedge.

Yes, there were holes that demanded extreme risk-reward calculations. Tiger Woods covered the flag with his approach to the par-5 17th in the second round, only to watch his ball trickle off the back edge of the green and roll down the closely mowed slope, gaining speed until it approached sea level. Ernie Els met a similar fate in the final round, his too-weak iron shot on the par-3 8th visiting the apron before taking a 55-yard-long backward meander that consumed more time than a John Daly marriage ceremony.

But, hey, Davis didn't hide the Lake's naughty bits. The no-go zones appeared on the covers of magazines. They were telestrator-circled by Johnny Miller, gabbed about in pre-tournament press conferences, and painstakingly surveyed by the players in their practice rounds. There was nothing unfair about these danger spots. Davis invited you to hit it elsewhere.

Here's what was so great about the Lake Course: You couldn't beat it with a one-dimensional game. The dirty secret of the tours is that your average tournament pro, even if he has won from time to time, favors either a habitual draw or an ingrained fade; he shapes the ball the opposite way only to escape trouble. Most of the pros, in other words, don't trust themselves to get creative under major-championship pressure.

The Olympic Club destroys those guys. You have to be able to move your ball both ways if you want to shoot near par. And because Davis shaved a few banks for the Open, you had to have the full arsenal of greenside shots. Your lob shot worked from the foot of the grandstand on No. 1, but you needed your bump-and-run to regain the putting surface on 17. Putting from the collar? You were smart to bump your ball with a hybrid or fairway wood.

The only criticism of Olympic that causes me to rub my chin is the one about drivers — or the lack thereof. It's true that power hitters can't employ their bomb-and-gouge tactics on the Lake Course because of all those doglegs and tilted fairways. The big hitters rarely take the head covers off their drivers, recognizing that 3-woods and hybrids are the safer play. "Pinching Power" is how one headline writer described it.

That's not good. Driving should be part of the examination. The guy who can hit it longer than his peers — assuming he can also keep it in play — should be rewarded for his length. But the way I look at it, every time a long-hitter shifts down to negotiate a dogleg, he gets to use a club he can control better than the driver. The shorter hitters, meanwhile, stick with their harder-to-control drivers. So I would argue that the big guns, while hitting their tee shots no farther than the pipsqueaks, actually retain their length advantage.

That's an argument I'd prefer to make with some statistical support, but for now it's just a hunch. But it's MY hunch. I'm not backing off my declaration that Olympic 2012 was as good as it gets, examination-wise. Webb Simpson probably hit every kind of shot with every club in the bag to achieve his one-stroke victory. The NBC cameras caught only a handful of those shots, but I'm sure I'm right.

Oh, and lest I forget, the Lake Course was very, very pretty. Even in the fog.

My prediction: We'll be back.