US Open golf: Right place for the ‘wrong’ guy

IT’S renowned as the US Open venue where weird stuff happens, where perversity has forever been the norm. Which makes some kind of (no) sense given that the ever-so-exclusive Olympic Club is situated within San Francisco, politically and culturally one of America’s most democratically-minded and egalitarian cities. But it is also the place where the “wrong” guy wins. Every time.

On each of the four previous occasions that America’s national championship has made its way to America’s trendiest metropolis, one of the world’s very best golfers has looked a sure winner before being surprisingly defeated down the stretch. Filed under “amazing but true,” Olympic’s four champions amassed seven major titles between them, while the four runners-up accumulated as many as 27.

In 1955, the hitherto unknown Jack Fleck made two birdies over the last four holes of regulation play to tie the ultimate US Open player in Ben Hogan, then won the play-off the next day. In 1966, eventual champion Billy Casper came from seven shots behind with only nine holes to play to force another play-off with Arnold Palmer. Twenty-one years later, the all but anonymous Scott Simpson hid behind his goofy moustache and was too good for multiple-major champion Tom Watson. And, in 1998, the late, great Payne Stewart found the combination of crazy pin positions, silly greens and the sterling play of Lee Janzen too much to cope with.

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By that measure, seven days from now we can expect an old-fashioned archetypal US Open champion – in other words, a plodder – to be lifting the trophy, having seen off a despairing but ultimately unavailing challenge from one of golf’s superstars. Then again, “plodding” is a relative term when it comes to the year’s second major. The US Open has almost always been a place where patience rather than panache has been most rewarded. Par golf is the name of the game.

In contrast with the target-golf that aided and abetted Rory McIlroy’s power game 12 months ago at Congressional, Olympic will see a return to a more prosaic US Open norm. For one thing, the United States Golf Association will not want to see a repeat of the low scoring it was stung by last year. And, for another, no less a judge than 1973 champion and local boy Johnny Miller has already proclaimed that Olympic has been set up as a typical and traditional US Open test, one where finding fairways and hitting greens will be the pre-requisite of success.

“No doubt about it – the first six holes at Olympic Club will be the hardest opening six holes in the history of championship golf,” Miller recently told “It’s off-the-charts tough. The first is a 520-yard par-4, converted from a par-5. With a left-to-right wind coming off the ocean, it will probably average about 4.7. I predict the field will average at least three over par for those first six holes. Getting to the seventh tee at one or two-over is not horrible. There’s never been an opening six holes like we’ll see this year. It’ll be crazy tough!”

Miller knows what he is talking about. Not only has he been playing the course since childhood, it was his record-breaking round of 63 at Oakmont in 1973 that provoked what became known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot” 12 months later. To repeat: the USGA does not take kindly to low numbers on “their” golf courses in what is supposed to be the most demanding of the four Grand Slam events.

Still, one thing no one will surely crave is a repeat of what went on during the 1998 championship won by Janzen. The lasting image of that event is not of the then 29-year-old Floridian clinching his second US Open title. Oh no. Instead, what sticks in the memory is the sight of Stewart, having lipped out from six feet for birdie on the severely sloping 18th green, watching his ball trickle inexorably to the front of the putting surface.

Sadly, the eventual runner-up wasn’t the only man to suffer at the hands of Tom Meeks, the rules official in charge of pin positions that week. Then Open champion Tom Lehman was so outraged after four-putting that same 18th green he indulged in an uncharacteristic and thunderously foul-mouthed tirade when he found Meeks in the clubhouse. And Kirk Triplett, who was going to miss the cut regardless, made himself a hero to many when he illegally used his putter to halt his ball’s trickle down that infamous final green slope, accepted his two-shot penalty, then tapped in for a double-bogey. As David Fay, then executive director of the USGA, immediately acknowledged on television: “Yes, I think he was making a point.”

To his credit, the hapless Meeks owned up to his own incompetence.

Six years later he told American magazine, Golf Digest: “It was a disaster. A US Open course is supposed to be difficult and sometimes hole locations are on the threshold of being too difficult. But I crossed the line. It was a terrible mistake on my part and made the whole USGA look bad. There aren’t a lot of highs and lows in my job, but this was a huge blow. I still think about it.”

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Happily, we can safely assume that such nonsense will not be repeated this time round. Meeks is retired and the course set-up is now in the hands of Fay’s successor, Mike Davis. It is a job he has transformed, in fact. Over the last few years, the inventive Davis has actually made the US Open interesting rather than interminable, albeit it remains more of a penal test than a strategic one in the style of, say, the Old Course at St Andrews. The rough may be graded these days, but it is still plenty deep and more than enough to punish those who stray off the tee.

Nowhere is that intimidating factor going to be more influential than at the 670-yard (not a misprint) par-5 16th. Miller claims to have never seen this green hit in two shots and calls it “a legitimate three-shot par-5 with out-of-bounds or water”. It’s also safe to say that this monster – “almost a triple dogleg,” according to Miller – will quickly become an equally legitimate four-shot par-6 as soon as a shot leaves the confines of the narrow fairway.

Which brings us inexorably to the columnist’s nightmare, predicting the winner.

Miller likes the chances of world No.1 Luke Donald, if only because he’s “a plodder with the iron game and putting to win the US Open”.

But that is hardly sticking one’s neck out.

Let’s just say that the eventual champion isn’t going to be short off the tee (who is these days?) and he is going to have to make his share of six-foot putts for par, or even bogey on occasion. But don’t forget, this is Olympic. So expect the unexpected. Expect to see the likes of Tiger, Phil, Luke, Lee and Rory in contention. But don’t expect any of them to prevail over someone called Zach (Johnson), or Steve (Stricker), or Matt (Kuchar).

Perhaps the only sure thing is that Paul Lawrie isn’t going to win…