Olympic Club’s Lake Course is constantly changing beast

By the time Tiger Woods got to the 18th green on Friday, the Lake Course was dry and springy.
Robert Beck / SI

SAN FRANCISCO — Before the start of the tournament, every golfer at the U.S. Open, including Masters champion Bubba Watson, knew that playing the Olympic Club's Lake Course was going to be grueling.

"Oakmont was probably the toughest course I've ever seen," Watson said, referring to the venue for the 2007 U.S. Open, where Watson finished tied for fifth. He shot 78-71 to miss the cut this week.

"I think here matches it, maybe a little bit tougher."

Olympic is also a course that has evolved this week under the watch of Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA; Tom O'Toole, the chairman of the championship committee; and the grounds crew at Olympic.

Ideally, a U.S. Open venue is taken right to the edge of what is maintainable during the four days of competition. This year, the days before the tournament were especially warm and sunny, so the grounds crew recommended extra water on Tuesday. That made the course softer and slower for Wednesday's practice rounds, which didn't go unnoticed by players.

"The problem these days, when we play majors, is the week before is nothing like when you get to Thursday," Luke Donald said on Friday. Donald, the world's No. 1 player, finished 11 over par and missed the cut. "They have a knack of making the course play differently. When it comes to turning up on Thursday morning, it seems like a different animal."

Tiger Woods noticed the metamorphosis, too. "I was very surprised at how much it had changed overnight, just how much speed that the fairways had picked up and the springiness of the greens," he said Thursday. "We knew the greens were going to be a little quicker, but I didn't think they would be this firm this early in the week."

Davis knew Olympic was going to be more firm once the tournament began, so the comments from Donald and Woods probably didn't surprise him.

"When you get in very dry climates like this, one of the things we've learned is it's awful hard to maintain a real firm golf course for seven, eight days," he said on Thursday. "The rest of the way, we don't want to see this course get much firmer. It's always going to get firmer in the afternoons. The players in the morning are going to play a softer golf course when you're in this type of climate. That's just the way it is."

After the conclusion of his Friday afternoon round, Woods, who started at 7:33 on Thursday morning, echoed Davis's statement.

"It was just a different golf course than what we played yesterday," he said. "We had moisture on the greens and fairways [Thursday]. They were fast, but at least we had little bit of some moisture in there. Today there was none."

Woods said that his shots bounced and bounded on the fairways and on the greens. "It was getting crusty enough where the ball was wiggling on the greens if you were coming down the hill, so you try to leave yourself below the hole. But it's really hard to leave yourself below the hole because it's so springy."

While Woods said the course was running faster on Friday afternoon, the course on whole played a bit easier in the second round. The average score Friday (74.05) was almost a shot lower than Thursday (74.92).

One of the trickiest parts of the job for Davis and his colleagues is making all of Olympic's 18 greens run at a uniform speed. The dry weather, and a little technology, makes that possible.

"[The grounds crew] takes moisture readings at anywhere between nine and 12 places in the greens," Davis said. "They really try to get that percentage of moisture consistent from green to green. So that's why [Thursday] morning we actually watered several greens and others weren't watered at all, to get the moisture readings and the firmness readings the same."

Grumblings about the course so far have been minimal and have generally come from the players who have struggled. Shocking, right? Most players have described the course using words like "fair" and "pure." On Friday, Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open down the road at Pebble Beach, went so far as to say that he's a Mike Davis fan.

"I've been playing most of my U.S. Opens in the Mike Davis era, and between himself and Peter Dawson [chief executive of the R&A], I think the game of golf's in fantastic hands. I think they both do great jobs. Mike sets a great golf course up."

At this point, Davis and the grounds crew can only control the sprinklers, the mowers and the hole cutters. In a few days, the Lake Course will slowly start to morph back into a classic country club track that welcomes Bay Area bluebloods. Until then, it might be the most challenging course in the world, which is just what a U.S. Open venue is supposed to be.