The US Open returns for the fifth time to San Francisco and its venerable Olympic Club when action commences near the Golden Gate on Thursday.
And if the 2012 renewal is anything like the previous four Opens contested at Olympic, we’re in for a good show this weekend.
Perhaps the most memorable of the past Opens at Olympic occurred in 1966, when Arnold Palmer appeared to be running away from the field. Arnie, playing confidently, had stretched his 3-stroke lead entering the final round to a seemingly-unassailable seven strokes at the turn.
But Palmer began to unravel on the back nine while Billy Casper made a legendary charge. By the 17th hold, Arnie’s lead had completely disappeared, and Palmer needed to convert a tough up-and-down on the 18th green to merely force a playoff, which took place the following day.
Again, the back nine proved to be Arnie’s Waterloo, as he faltered once more after taking a 2-shot lead into the turn. A double-bogey on 16 doomed Palmer, and Casper ended up winning by four strokes. It was Palmer’s third playoff loss at a US Open and one of the last times he made a run at one of the majors. The following year, Arnie chased Jack Nicklaus to no avail in the US Open at Baltusrol, finishing a distant second, four shots in arrears.
Arnie’s last hurrah in a major came in the 1968 PGA at San Antonio’s Pecan Valley, where, along with lefty Bob Charles, he chased Julius Boros down the stretch. His putter betrayed him, however, and he ended up one behind Boros. Palmer never again mounted a serious challenge in a major.
Olympic Club has other historical notes in the Open, including the first one contested on the fog-shrouded links in 1955, when unknown Iowan Jack Fleck outdueled the great Ben Hogan and won in a playoff. After Casper’s playoff win over Palmer, the Open returned to Olympic in 1987, when Scott Simpson prevailed, and again in 1998, when Lee Janzen rallied past Payne Stewart to claim victory.
Fast forward to 2012, and most of the pre-tourney chatter is focusing upon none other than Tiger Woods, who enters as the favorite after his comeback win two weeks ago at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tourney in suburban Columbus.
In truth, Woods has already had a wildly successful season, with a pair of wins in 2012 at Palmer’s Bay Hill Tourney and the Memorial. The mostly-shallow American sporting press, however, will as usual make a fuss over Tiger’s showings in the majors above all else. Sometimes we get the feeling that Tiger could win four or five tour events this season, but not receive nearly the adulation we would get from the press if he wins just one major.
The Open marks Tiger’s last major win in 2008 at Torrey Pines, just before his knee surgery. Woods was far out of the money at The Masters in early April, finishing a distant 40th. Indeed, prior to his success at Nicklaus’ vent, Tiger had finished 40th or worse in three straight tourneys (including a missed cut at the Wells Fargo in early May), the longest-such drought in his career.
Olympic, however, presents a different sort of challenge than many tour stops. A mature course, heavily wooded, with usual damp conditions, it features extremely tight fairways and tiny greens. The first six holes are an acknowledged nightmare, and then there’s the 670-yard 16th hole to worry about later in the round. 'Target' golfers usually fare well at Olympic.
Woods is the consensus favorite at 8/1, but there are some other entries we believe might be worth a look at Olympic this week. Win odds are posted alongside the player’s name.
Luke Donald (12/1): With six wins in the last 18 months, the Englishman enters San Francisco as the world’s top-ranked golfer, but has yet to win a major. Donald’s recent win overseas at the BMW PGA suggests he might be ready to shake that label once and for all. Worth noting that no English golfer has won a major since Nick Faldo succeeded in the 1996 Masters.
Lee Westwood (12/1): Like Donald, Westwood is also seeking to win his elusive first-ever major. A recent win at the Noreda Masters indicates he might be up to the challenge. His noted accuracy off of the tee will come in handy at the brawling Olympic course.
Phil Mickelson (20/1): Lefty has won four majors but is still seeking his first US Open crown. He withdrew for reported “fatigue” two weeks ago after a disastrous opening round at Nicklaus’ Memorial, but we also wonder about distractions getting to Mickelson after he has complained to tour officials about so many camera phones making extra noise in the gallery. Five top-five finishes already in 2012, including a win in February at Pebble Beach, but 25th or worse in three of his last four tourney appearances.
Rory McIlroy (16/1): McIlroy certainly seems in good spirits after being asked to throw out the first pitch at a recent San Francisco Giants baseball game. He cannot be discounted with five top-five finishes in just eight PGA events this season, which includes a win at the Honda Classic in early March. McIlroy used last week’s St. Jude Tourney in Memphis as the prep for Olympic and fared well, finishing fourth.
Matt Kuchar (28/1): One of those whose game looks well-suited to the tight fairways and small greens at Olympic. Already with five top-five finishes on the tour this season, including a win last month at Ponte Vedra Beach in the TPC, Kuchar is awfully tempting with that tasty 28/1 win price.
Dustin Johnson (33/1): Winning back-to-back on the tour is a rare accomplishment, but no one can say Johnson is not bringing momentum into Olympic after his win at the St. Jude’s Classic last week.