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Olympic's trial begins with six-hole stretch to test players' limits

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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That's right -- the first hole at Olympic, formerly a par 5, is now a par-4, 520-yard test. (Getty Images)  
That's right -- the first hole at Olympic, formerly a par 5, is now a par-4, 520-yard test. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- If only he had added the maniacal laugh.

The head man at the U.S. Golf Association was amiably chatting about the course setup when the Olympic Club's controversial first six holes was broached. It's one of the major talking points of this major-championship week.

"You know," USGA executive director Mike Davis said, without a hint of perversity in his voice, "I'm going to be fascinated to look at the statistical average of those holes."

A couple of listeners cackled, even if he didn't.

As ever, much of the spotlight of the U.S. Open this week will shine over the closing holes, which are actually comparatively easy when compared with the daunting, over-carbonated six-pack that starts the tournament, which Tiger Woods characterized as the toughest opening stretch in majors history.

The guy has won 14 majors, so he ought to know.

Tough start at U.S. Open
Closer look at first six holes
U.S. Open (AP)

"I think that the first six, if you play them for four straight days in even par, you're going to be picking up a boatload of shots," Woods said.

Short of a boat ride to Alcatraz, it's the most penal territory in the city.

The opening stretch includes two of the club's trademark reverse-canted fairways, where the slope runs opposite the direction of the dogleg, a slew of tiny greens, and holes with four new tees that have added 152 yards to the stretch since 1998, the last time the Open was played at Olympic, which is perched on a bluff a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean shoreline.

As for what Tiger said, is there an echo in here?

"The real standout thing is going to be the first six holes," said former Open champion and Olympic member Johnny Miller, a San Francisco native who has played the course hundreds of times. "With No. 1 being a par 4, it's probably the hardest opening six holes maybe in the history of major championship golf -- with no wind."

Oh, right, that. There's usually an onshore breeze, too.

The course, built on the side of a hill, features holes that stairstep down toward Lake Merced like switchbacks on a mountain trail, and hits players in the jaw right at the opening bell. The first hole measures 520 yards and has been converted from a par 5 in three previous Opens to a punitive par 4, where finding the fairway is imperative.

"That's crazy, because No. 1 was basically the only birdie hole on that whole course, and now it makes it the hardest hole," said former San Franciscan Spencer Levin, who has played the course numerous times. "And it was already the hardest first six, anyway."

These guys might need chinstraps on their golf hats. The second hole is 428 yards and plays uphill to a smallish green surrounded by four bunkers, featuring a new tee that added 34 yards. The fairway landing area is about 20 yards wide. If you squint, the landing strip looks like a grassy oasis in the distance.

The third is a 247-yard par-3 that plays slightly downhill and has an open area in front, allowing players to run the ball onto the green. After 24 yards were added to the hole, in practice rounds, players were auditioning fairway woods, hybrids and utility clubs off the tee. From the tee, the two spires of the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance on a clear day.

Clarity will be paramount between the ears of players.

"You watch," Levin said, "the guys who play the first six holes the best are probably going to have a good chance."

Maybe better than that.

At the fourth, another medium-sized par 4 of 438 yards, is where it gets truly interesting for those who are not familiar with Olympic's peccadilloes. The fairway slopes hard from left to right off the hillside, but the dogleg hole runs right to left. Yeah, put that in your mental laptop and hit "enter."

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Right-handed players have been using fairway woods and hybrids off the tee, trying to hit hooks into the side of the hill, hoping the ball doesn't run all the way through the canted fairway into the right rough. The wind blows hard from the players' left, too.

Ditto on the par-4 fifth, but in reverse: It's 498 yards thanks to a 41-yard lengthening, with a fairway that slopes from right to left on a hole that doglegs from left to right. Sure, it's counterintuitive -- but it's an Olympic trademark.

Imagine exiting at 60 mph from the interstate onto an off ramp that veers hard to the right ... as the banking of the road tilts hard to the left. That's a decent analogy for Nos. 4-5. It's the opening stretch's infamous Camber of Horrors.

The sixth is a 490-yard par 4 that features the course's lone fairway bunker, and it was relocated by five yards in order to bring it more into play off the tee. In fact, the rough was mowed down and tee shots now feed toward the sand, a la the famed pot bunkers at St. Andrews.

In practice, PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley elected to squeeze a driver through the narrow 20-yard slot between the bunker and the right rough. Otherwise, a 3-wood might have trickled into the bunker, which requires a carry of 313 yards to clear. The bunker is deep, leaving little chance to reach the green in regulation.

"You just have to sack up and hit it," Bradley's caddie, Steve Hale, said of mashing a driver toward such a tiny, distant gap.

These holes actually hit back. Aiming at tiny greens, often from side-hill slopes, in a 20 mph crosswind, with a 4-iron in hand will make the best players in the world pucker in every orifice.

"It's just that they are brutal holes, they are banked the wrong way," said Miller, a Hall of Famer who will work this week as NBC's lead analyst. "You need to hit cuts and you need to hit draws, and you've got some wind coming over the top of the trees. But with No. 1 being a 4-par, that opening run is just absolutely amazing."

Davis is expected to move the tees around, too, which means players face uncertainty about what clubs to hit, especially if the weather and wind vary -- even more to obsess about over the first third of the course.

"The thing is, we all know that back in the older U.S. Opens, it was always back," Woods said of the tee boxes. "Now, Mike throws wrinkles in every now and then. You've just got to make those adjustments."

The biggest alteration might be in expectations. Davis predicted that completing the stretch in 2-over won't ruin a round, necessarily, and might even be the norm for those having good days.

World No. 1 Luke Donald had heard before he set foot on the property about the Slackjawed Six, and had to admit that the difficulty of the opening run hadn't been exaggerated.

"Those first six holes," Donald exhaled, "everything that's been said about them, it's true."

This is a certainty, too -- there will be plenty more uttered, if not muttered, including the use of some words you don't want your mama to hear.

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