At Olympic, the USGA strikes back
By Scott Rabalais
June 30, 2012
It’s hard to say exactly what they played last June at Congressional Country Club. A ghost of Kemper Opens past, perhaps.
It sure wasn’t the U.S. Open.
Congressional is where the CIA got its start as an O.S.S. training ground in World War II, but if they’d been training there last year the U.S. might have lost. A track already too generous was softened by rain and the result was a dartboard, not the most stringent test in golf. Rory McIlroy broke 12 records en route to a 16-under par total of 268, taking 19 other players into red numbers with him.
The USGA, which has gone a bit soft on the setups under executive director Mike Davis, was said to be embarrassed.
It’s premier championship was stripped of its identity. And the last time the USGA was embarrassed like this was 1973, Olympic member Johnny Miller shot a closing 63 to win at Oakmont.
What followed a year later became known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” The greens were so firm, a car accidentally drove over one of them one night and didn’t leave a mark. True story. The rough was so deep, Gary Player was lost for a round and a half.
OK, not a true story about wee Gary. But Hale Irwin shot 7 over to win by two strokes, and no one was laughing about that.
They won’t be any chuckles this year either. But there will be plenty of players who leave their hearts — and kneecaps — at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
“With what happened last year, with Rory shooting a million under, they’re going to kind of torture us a little bit,” Steve Marino said.
In other words, the U.S. Open is back.
I covered the 1987 U.S. Open at Olympic as a college student. Then LSU men’s golf coach Buddy Alexander had won the U.S. Amateur the year before to earn an invitation.
Scott Simpson won that year with a score of 3 under 277 to beat Tom Watson by a stroke. It was an outcome — like Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan there in 1955 and Billy Casper beating Arnold Palmer in 1966 — that helped give Olympic the nickname “Graveyard of Champions.”
You could lose a headstone in the rough. I remember walking along the fairways, occasionally dropping a ball into the lush, gnarly grass.
It sank to the bottom every time.
They say the first six holes, which kick off with a 520-yard par-4 and include a 247-yard par-3, will be the toughest start in major championship history. The finish includes a 670-yard par-5 16th that Phil Mickelson said will be the toughest hole on the course. In between there are plenty of fairways that curve one way and cant another, so avoiding the club-wrenching rough will be difficult.
And this being California in June there is virtually no chance of rain, so the track will play as firm and fast as the USGA wants.
If what it wants is a scoreboard without red numbers by Sunday afternoon, they’ve come to the right place.