The thing is, the way the USGA had it set up, The Olympic Club was the hardest course in America, at least for one week. Sorry, Oakmont, but it was.
The Olympic Club is not as highly ranked as you might expect, No. 43 in the world by one major publication and No. 27 in the U.S. by another. So, to make this a major venue of the highest caliber, it was going to be all in the preparation.
It is the national championship, after all, and it should be tough. But the beauty of Olympic was that the difference between 70 and 77 all week was about this much. All week, the players moaned that all you had to be was just a little off and your scores started adding up, like Rory and Luke and Tiger.
And while, on the surface, that seems like a lame excuse, at Olympic it was a perfectly reasonable explanation.
I walked the golf course and I couldn’t find much way to make a par on many of the holes, the first six for certain because the fairways were so narrow and canted the wrong way and the greens were so small. You could make a par on the drivable seventh and the par-5 17th, if you laid up and hit the fairway. Otherwise, Olympic was a heaving sea of bogeys and doubles and others.
The rough was not that rough, spotty in places and afforded the players to play to the green from just off the fairway. But the tiny greens were so firm that any shot without spin had no chance of staying on the surface and chip shots from either the rough or the shaved chipping areas were no bargain.
I have a low handicap (not bragging because I can’t play to it) but I figured the over/under for me at Olympic under these conditions was 95 and yes, Ty, I’d look like a tremendous slouch. I usually look forward to playing major venues if afforded the opportunity, but with Olympic, I was happy not to take it on.
Yet, I have a Scottish colleague – a cranky Scotsman – who complained (he always complains) that the U.S. Open was boring and not “proper golf.” He’s a links golf snob and believes that’s the only way to play the game.
However, the lads usually only play “proper” links once a year (the Open Championship), twice this year (Royal Portrush at the Irish Open). Besides, links courses are only found in the UKI and make up less than one percent of the courses worldwide. So there must be proper golf elsewhere, maybe even in the U.S.
Olympic met that criteria and the USGA got it exactly right. All week, the USGA talked about “water management” to keep the course on a razor’s edge, with trouble lurking at every turn but just short of losing control and making the course unplayable. When the fog rolled in on Sunday morning, the moisture in the air that landed softly on the ground made certain that Olympic would not get out of control on the final day.
For U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson to have shot 68-68 on the weekend was a remarkable feat but he had to play near-perfect golf to achieve such scores. Second-best on the weekend was Casey Wittenberg, who shot 67-70, good enough for a top 10.
On the other hand, Donald, McIlroy, Woods and Jim Furyk were slapped in the face by Olympic when their golf was at least slightly less than perfect. McIlroy shot 77-73 and Donald posted 79-72 and these are the two highest-ranked players in the world. Yet, both said they weren’t that far off, and after seeing the course, it’s difficult not to take them at their word.
Woods looked as if he was in control of the championship, shooting 70-69 after 36 holes and sharing the lead with Furyk. But his game slid off the rails and on Saturday, with a 6-iron in his hand for his second shot at the 17th, he couldn’t even get it to the front bunker, some 20 yards short of the green. On Sunday, he was 6 over after the infamous six starting holes and, to his credit, rallied to a 73. Even Tiger said he wasn’t far off and while most times, we write that off to Tigerspeak, at Olympic with the track records of countless others, he wasn’t hard to believe.
Furyk was seemingly in command after 54 holes, at 1 under, and on Sunday, played the first five holes in even par. But from the sixth through to the end, he was 4 over, including going 6-5-5 on the final three to lose the championship. The telling stat? He failed to hit the final five fairways, including an ugly snipe hook to start the par-5 16th.
Such were the demands of The Olympic Club for the best players in the world. If you subscribe to the year-long statistics in professional golf, the difference between the best and the middle of the pack is often miniscule.
And when you play a course configured as difficult as Olympic was, believe it or not, the difference is even smaller.