SAN FRANCISCO — On a foggy Wednesday morning at the Olympic Club, Tiger Woods strolled to the right side of the 17th green and gently dropped a ball on what looked like a level spot a full five paces from the fringe. The ball settled, ever so briefly, and then began trickling … and trickling … and trickling.
Seconds later, it had vanished, dropping off the edge of the green, 30 yards down a shaved bank into a collection area cluttered by trees and overhanging branches. Woods peered down at where his ball had come to rest and shook his head.
Takeaway No. 1: Don't miss right at 17.
Takeaway No. 2: It's U.S. Open week, boys. Better watch your step.
A year after a wet layout — and a white-hot Rory McIlroy — made the U.S. Open at Congressional feel more like the John Deere Classic, the U.S. Open appears to be back, if not for blood then at the very least for double-bogeys. That's the general sentiment around the O.C., where warm, breezy weather should result in a fiery layout, and where sharp doglegs, canted fairways and shaved banks could leave some players in the same state.
"There's plenty of [potential] problem areas," said 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk as he rolled five-footers across the practice green Wednesday morning. "All those shaved areas around the greens — on 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, left of 10. Left of 13 is drastic."
"And they're not collection areas," he said, implying that "collection" is way too kind a descriptor for them. "They drag the ball away into danger, into spots from where guys might miss the green. It's not about showcasing your skills around these greens; it's about penalizing a player for missing on the wrong side."
During his Tuesday press conference, Phil Mickelson also warned of the dangers that lurk around the 13th green. "If you miss it left, it's off to Hartford," he said, referencing next week's PGA Tour stop in Connecticut. "You may as well pack your bags, and we'll see you next week at Hartford."
Most players are likely to blow a tire or two well before 13. The course opens with what some talking-heads are calling the toughest six-hole start in Open history, a gnarly gauntlet that features three par 4s of 480-plus yards and a par 3 pushing 250. In all, those six holes play 138 yards longer than they did during the last U.S. Open held here, in 1998. And after that beastly stretch? Let's just say the "let-up" holes aren't exactly a long weekend at Canyon Ranch.
"No. 1 is really no different than No. 12," Steve Stricker said. "They're [all] long, they're hard."
It's not so much the length of Olympic (7,170 yards) that will flummox the field, it's the fairways, which swerve and tilt like an Indy track. On many holes, especially when the course is running fast, center cut isn't the aiming point. Players will instead need to land their tee shots on the left or right side of the fairway to allow balls to run back to the middle.
"As far as fairway pitch, I can't think of another course off the top of my head that approaches this one," Furyk said. "This golf course was built on the side of a hill, and most of the holes don't go up and down the hill, they go across the hill, so I can't think of anywhere that mimics this fairway-wise."
During his practice round Tuesday, Nationwide Tour pro Jeff Curl hit three tee balls at 18, a short par 4 with a fairway that tilts from left to right. Into a stiff left-to-right breeze, Curl started one drive up the gut and two more up the left. All three shots found the right rough.
An hour earlier, Joe Ogilvie had strolled over to the gallery ropes behind the eighth green to say hello to a couple of his friends from the finance world.
"This course is HARD," Ogilvie said as he approached the ropes.
The conversation turned to a potential winning score for the week. Ogilvie didn't offer one, but he did have some advice for his money-minded friends: "A good asset allocation strategy is bet the over."
Even Jack Nicklaus, who played in three Opens here, could never fully solve the Olympic riddle.
"You get on one side of the fairway, it ran off the other side in the rough," Nicklaus said Wednesday. "It was hard for me. There's a lot of holes on this golf course that didn't shape well for a left to right player. Fourth hole didn't shape well for me, 17th didn't shape well for me. You had to take the ball and turn it back into the hill on both of those holes."
So who does this quirky killer set up for? A straight-hitter like Tim Clark? A short-game whiz like Luke Donald? An enigma like Tiger Woods?
When approached on the range Wednesday at Olympic, Woods's swing coach Sean Foley declined to talk about the chances of his star client, but he did say that he likes the odds of a guy who can hit greens.
"The greens are so small that if you hit 18 iron shots into the middle of the green, in the dead epicenter of the green, you're probably going to have 10 birdie putts of about 10 feet. And the greens aren't that severe."
In fact, Foley said, the course itself isn't all that severe. Managing this week, and the daunting aura of the U.S. Open, he said, is all about having the right state of mind.
"A guy goes to the Transitions tournament in Tampa, that place is tough, too," Foley said. "But the perception is that's it not as tough because it's the Transitions — it's not the U.S. Open. The Open is difficult — obviously, it's difficult. But you're not going to know until after you play what it's really going to be like. So you can't go convincing yourself of a storyline that hasn't happened yet."
Takeaway No. 3: Check back Sunday. Maybe Olympic won't be so tough after all.