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Pond Scrum: Is Olympic Club's tradition of underdog winners history?


No. 16 isn't the only par-5 at Olympic Club that will likely prove punishing this week. (Getty Images)  
No. 16 isn't the only par-5 at Olympic Club that will likely prove punishing this week. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Pacific Ocean is, quite literally, a few hundred yards away.

If not for the cliffs and the unpredictable winds, you could probably hear the waves crashing and the sea lions barking and clapping.

Given what many expect this week at the traditionally punitive 112th U.S. Open, it might be the only woofing, yet hardly the only crashing, witnessed at difficult Olympic Club, one of the most treacherous venues in the National Open rotation.

Beginning with a brutal stretch of opening holes and ending with par-5s on Nos. 16 and 17, it's going to present a stern test for both favorites and underdogs, and the latter category has been well represented in the winner's circle at Olympic in the four previous times the club has hosted the tournament.

Will that slice of history hold up? Maybe not.

Most of the favorites enter the week riding high, including Luke Donald, Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and unpredictable defending champion Rory McIlroy, each of whom has won in the past couple of months.

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The club's past and the players' present make it a hard one to handicap, for sure, but that's why CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling and European Tour correspondent John Huggan are back for another windy iteration of Pond Scrum, their pre-major championship look at how it all sets up.

And how it should shake out. No, that's not an earthquake joke. Necessarily.

Right out of the chute, we'll start with the high-profile defending champion at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy. So, was what took place down the stretch in Memphis helpful or hurtful?

Elling: Uh, yes? I am totally comfortable with that response.

Huggan: It wasn't so much that Rory made a double on the 18th. As I recall, that has happened more than once before on that hole. A closer look at his weekend performance reveals eight bogeys and a double. That is shockingly bad for one so talented. Right now, it would appear, the reigning U.S. Open champion has too many wayward shots in his bag.

Elling: On the upside, I'm sure he was happy to get 72 holes of competitive golf under his belt after those three missed cuts. Let's hope he isn't missing his tennis coach too much and can at least keep that going for one more week.

Huggan: Yeah, but at least he had a weekend scorecard to tally. It had been a month of starts since he worked on Saturday and Sunday. This time, he went to the 72nd hole with a sniff of a trophy in his nostrils, not the exhaust fumes from another parking-lot car and a trunk-slamming missed cut.

Elling: To me, the fact that McIlroy put himself in contention, and then some, was a huge step forward. The kid had missed three straight cuts at premier events, twice shooting 79. This time, he just hit a horrible shot at absolutely the worst possible time, wrecking any chance at a victory when he had a hand on the trophy. Is his confidence shaken? It ought to be. But he's in better shape than he was 10 days ago.

Huggan: My bigger question re Rory's chances this week are more to do with the bigger picture. Does he have more than one gear? I have doubts about that. Any time the course is not soft enough for him to go full-bore at every target, his play has been less than stellar. And, after last year, there is no way that the USGA is going to have the course at anything less than brutal. Just as they did in 1974 -- the "massacre at Winged Foot -- in the wake of Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont 12 months previously, look for them to exact some revenge this time round.

Elling: A random thought: What would we be saying if Tiger Woods had rinsed a shot on the 72nd hole when holding the lead? We'd probably be busting out the BBQ sauce and steak knives.

Huggan: Tiger would have hit an iron off that tee, then gone from there. The old Tiger, anyway.

Elling: Oh, I agree completely about the potential bloodletting. This is one of the hardest courses on the planet. Hogan shot 7 over in 1955 and made a playoff.

Broadly speaking, the Memphis week was a nice tonic for McIlroy. He added the tournament, mind you, because he needed the at-bats, so to speak. Well, he went right down to the last hole with a chance to win -- heck, he played the last seven holes in 3 over, so maybe he should have won -- but he has to be in a better place than he was in Ohio, Wentworth and Sawgrass.

Huggan: I reckon that something like 6 over par will be in with a real chance come Sunday evening. And if history is to tell us anything, a real plodder is going to end up winning. With a superstar in second place.

On that front, for fans who don't recall much about Olympic Club when it hosted the event in 1998, what can they expect to see this week?

Elling: They can expect the unexpected. Indeed, Olympic Club has never served up the winner most folks expected in its past four hostings of the Open, starting with the first one in 1955, when a winless Iowan named Jack Fleck took down the seemingly infallible Hogan. It's only gotten crazier from there.

Huggan: I'd exempt Billy Casper from the "no-name winners" category. Three majors and over 50 PGA Tour wins means he was a proper player -- and then some. The same, however, cannot be said of messrs Fleck, Simpson and Janzen. Plodders, all of them.

Elling: No question. But Casper beat Arnold Palmer, the most revered figure in the history of the game. In all four instances, the perceived fan favorite did not win. Not to suggest they could not play or did not have the chops to handle the rigors of an Open. Scott Simpson, Lee Janzen and Casper could all play hard courses.

Huggan: But that's what you get when you narrow the fairways and pour concrete on the greens. The better players lose their edge and it becomes nothing more than a test of execution for four days. Flair, imagination and shot-making? Might as well leave them in the clubhouse.

Elling: Plotting or plodding? Either way, two decent Open attributes.

Here's an insane Olympic Club fact: Billy Casper and Lee Janzen both erased seven-stroke deficits in the final round to ultimately win. Nobody at home better change the channel early at this venue, especially since two of the last three holes are par-5s and present some scoring chances.

Huggan: The 16th is 670 yards long. Thank goodness the ball doesn't go too far or someone might reach it in two. Actually, that hole will be a par-6 for everyone who veers left or right off the fairway at any stage. Which is at least novel.

Elling: The course is sorta like another San Francisco treat -– sourdough bread. Not everybody likes it. Imagine taking a freeway off-ramp that bends to the right at a high rate of speed. Now, imagine that the road itself is tilted to the left. That's a fair description of about a half-dozen of the fairways. Reverse camber, I believe the design types might call it. You won't find many players who like it unreservedly, but that's the most identifiable characteristic of this venue.

Let me take another try. Imagine a NASCAR race. One big left-hand turn, normally, correct? OK, but the road at this track leans to the right. Players have to hit crazy hooks and fads to keep tee shots in the fairways, and hitting fairways might be the most important key to the week.

Huggan: For what it is worth -- and that isn't much -- I have never been impressed with the course. Some of the holes -- notably the 17th and 18th -- were complete jokes last time. The 17th fairway was all but unhittable. And the lasting image of the '98 Open is not Janzen winning but Payne Stewart watching his ball trickle slowly down that silly final green. He had a four-footer for birdie and a 40-footer for par.

Elling: Yeah, that image of Payne standing there with his arms crossed as the ball fell off the face of the planet defined the USGA knuckleheads at their worst. Well, until Shinnecock.

Huggan: I remember watching Kirk Triplett -- who was missing the cut in any case -- lip out from three feet or so, then stop his ball with his club before it had a chance to run away too far. He then tapped in for a six, adding two shots for what USGA boss David Fay admitted was, "making a point."

Elling: It would have been funnier if Triplett had stuck that bucket-style hat he often wears over the ball. That would have really cemented the idiocy of that pin position.

Does Tiger Woods need to win a major before he's really back?

Elling: Yes, he does. Next question.

Seriously, how do we wanna define "back?" He's already a frontrunner for player of the year, and it won't take much for him to lead the money list. He could conceivably ascend to No. 1 in the world before the end of the year. Remember, nobody won more than twice on the U.S. tour in 2011. But he's not going to play like he did for most of the 2000s. Not the way he's putting.

Huggan: Of course. For Tiger, winning at Bay Hill and Memorial -- where he has won multiple times in the past -- are mere stepping stones. Until he wins at the very highest level, he remains some way short of his former dominance. I'm not sure he will ever be what he was, in fact. By my reckoning he is going to be one of the better players for the next five years or so. But dominant? Those days are gone.

Elling: Whoa, sounds like we agree. Hand me an eraser. Woods hit it as well as he has in probably three years in his win at Memorial, and started conjuring up this magical shots that intimidate other players. It didn't matter that he was 40-something in putting because he seemed to hit every green in regulation. I guess Rickie Fowler is officially the first new young guy, post-scandal, to have developed potential Tiger scar tissue, having played with Woods on Sunday and shot 84. Maybe that diminished aura is salvageable after all.

Huggan: And yes, we do hold Tiger to a higher standard than anyone else. He's the best player the game has ever seen, for goodness sake, so what else are we supposed to do?

Elling: That's generally what I tell people when they ask why I don't scrutinize Rory or Phil for missing cuts. They have not won 14 majors in as many years.

What do you boys make of the Casey Martin story?

Elling: Loving ... every ... minute. How can people not get behind this guy? Oh, right. The PGA Tour had a chance to do that 15 years ago and bungled it so badly, it's still a point of massive embarrassment. After fighting Martin's ability to use a cart in competition, he finally won the right. And that tidal wave of cart exemptions the tour warned about? Unless I have been mis-clubbed, the only other player to use a cart in a PGA Tour event is Erik Compton, a two-time heart transplant recipient and one of the most emotionally impactful stories in the tour's history. The tidal wave is a raindrop.

Huggan: Brilliant. I hope to shake that man's hand this week. He is truly an inspiration. Unlike those numbskulls at the PGA Tour who made him go all the way to the Supreme Court back in 1998. I hope Jack Nicklaus is still embarrassed by the fact that he testified against Martin back then. For such a figure in the game, that was truly a low moment, one that only enhanced golf's elitist and exclusionary image. We need to remember that golf started as an inclusive game, not an exclusive one.

Elling: Amen, brother John. The tour is so incredibly off base with its stance, it still can't admit to being wrong. In a wire story about Martin that was posted on the tour website recently, the tour edited out all references and background details about the court case that Martin won. Well, I hope fans don't forget. Martin is a terrific kid with a legitimate handicap, and the tour should be forced to eat crow, without salt, forevermore. Let him play.

Amazing story and now it has a sequel. Martin has played in exactly one major -- at Olympic Club, 14 years ago. Perfect. What an inspiration to his players on the men's team at the University of Oregon and others out there who have fought the good fight against people who wrongly thought they knew what was best for everybody else. Like you said, Nicklaus and Palmer were on the wrong side of this fight. And now they know it, too.

Huggan: I could not agree more, which is not something I think I have ever said to you before. Let's hope I never have to say it again.

Elling: Except when I ask if you want another round, and I'm buying the beers, that is.

Huggan: Of course, Tiger was another who was noticeably silent when it came to supporting his former college teammate. So it wasn't just the old fogies who missed that particular point.

Among the best at hitting fairways and greens, Westwood may have an edge at Olympic Club. (Getty Images)  
Among the best at hitting fairways and greens, Westwood may have an edge at Olympic Club. (Getty Images)  
It's been an incredibly eventful past few weeks -- not to mention the last eight days -- with many of the game's glittery stars winning or coming darned close. It's almost like the Masters all over again -- another point in the season where the top guns were all smoking entering a Grand Slam event. Each of you, identify your favorite for this week and explain why.

Elling: I was thinking about this earlier today. Do you realize that four of the last five guys to be ranked world No. 1 have won since March? Only Martin Kaymer spoils the perfecto. Some pretty stout playing for a large group of Vegas betting faves, to be sure. Glad I only wager a beer or two with the boys, because this one is even tougher to call than usual.

Huggan: My favorite is a type more than an individual. I genuinely fear that this year we will see a return to something like the U.S. Opens of old. Too much rough. Fairways that are too narrow. Greens that are too firm. And pin positions -- not, god help us, "hole locations" -- that are too tight. Next year at tiny Merion will even worse too. All because of the ball that goes too far.

Anyway, all of that means we will see a plodder win.

Elling: Luke Donald won at Wentworth, Tiger Woods won at Muirfield Village, Lee Westwood won in Sweden, Rickie Fowler was the tour player of the month for May, Matt Kuchar won at Sawgrass, and Dustin Johnson on Sunday won a shocker in his second event back after a three-month layoff. But since everybody says Olympic is about hitting fairways and greens, Westwood has got to be my pick. I think this makes about three majors in succession. Gotta get it correct at some point, right?

Huggan: Call me snobby, but someone less than a superstar is going to be holding the trophy at the end of this. And I hate to see that.

Elling: Like Y.E. Yang taking down Tiger at the PGA, you mean? That was pretty entertaining, unless you were backing the Striped One.

The U.S. Open is about making pars. The putter is slightly less important than at, say, the Masters. Not many are better than old Lee John Westwood with the 13 other clubs. Well, although Tiger was pretty stellar at Muirfield. But I digress. Again.

Huggan: I hope you are correct. If anyone can be said to deserve a major right now, it is Lee Westwood. And one of these weeks he is going to putt great and win one by eight or nine shots. I'll be not-so-secretly rooting for him to break his major duck.

Elling: A major duck? Is that U.K. code for "Rory hits another snap hook" under pressure?

Huggan: A duck is a cricketing term for when a player is out, without scoring. Have you never heard of the Test at Lords?

Elling: No, but I've heard of Tracy Lords. She scored plenty.

Huggan: Last week in Sweden, Westwood went out in the last round and missed five putts inside six feet in the first 10 holes. Yet he made only one bogey. That's serious ball-striking.

Elling: You have articulated my point completely. Can't wait to see how it plays out. The wind is supposed to blow, which is going to make finding fairways like trying to keep a driver on the Golden Gate Bridge in a 50 mph crosswind. Carnage assured.

Huggan: It will surely be fascinating. But will it be golf?

Elling: It's a once-a-year, suffering subset of golf. Where the strongest do not necessarily win, but the straightest often do.


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