The last time the Olympic Club in San Francisco welcomed the U.S. Open to its Lake Course, in 1998, it wasn't the most accommodating of hosts. Not a single golfer broke par that year. The winner, Lee Janzen, was dead even at 280 after four rounds of play. Eight over par got you into the top 10.
There were only 26 individual rounds below par (70) over the entire four-day event, and Janzen was the lone contender to do it on the final day.
The competitors that year rated the course somewhere between "difficult" and "I'm on my knees, beating my forehead against the fairway." It almost seems sadistic to mention, then, that when the Open returns to the Lake Course this Thursday, it might be even more brutal.
"I think Olympic in '98 was the toughest golf course all year long," said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who missed the cut that year. "I don't know if it will play that tough (in 2012). We'll have to wait to see how it was set up. But I expect it to be plenty tough."
Though the Lake Course might look largely unaltered to the untrained eye, it's a different setup than the one that greeted golfers in 1998 -- largely because of 373 yards of added pasture. Always a challenge, the Olympic Club has been supersized.
Bill Love, principal of W.R. Love Inc. and golf course architect for the Lake Course redesign that was completed in 2009, stresses that except for a few minor tweaks – such as bringing the fairway bunker on hole No. 6 into play -- the changes were not made specifically for the Open. Rather, they were drawn up at the request of the green committee to benefit membership.
In fact, some of the alterations were done of necessity. The greens were replaced with bent grass because the former poa annua had been invaded by nematodes. The club also removed more than 600 trees, most of them in poor shape.
Nevertheless, the changes carried out by Love and his team will be central to the drama that plays out later this week in the southwestern corner of San Francisco.
For the essence of what makes the Lake Course such a bear, start at the beginning -- the first six holes. "They are the toughest six holes to start out any championship that I've ever played," Tiger Woods told the camera in a videoconference posted on his web site after a practice round at Olympic in late May. "There's no break."
Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion who is now an analyst for the Golf Channel, agrees.
He called that early run "probably the hardest opening six holes maybe in the history of major championship golf with no wind."
And it starts right out of the chute at No. 1, a 520-yard hole that has always been played as a par 5. For the Open, it's a Herculean par 4. The second and sixth holes also have been lengthened. No. 2 and No. 4 are uphill, No. 5 is downhill and No. 3 is sure to be windy.
"So you're really off to a stretch that, if you drive the ball in the rough the first six holes, you could find yourself 4 or 5 over par very easily," said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North.
And it's not like the field will play Putt-Putt after six holes. There are minefields everywhere at the Lake Course. Even before the renovations, it was a course that made even pro golfers palpitate, and not because of length. At 7,154 yards, even the new configuration is modest by U.S. Open standards.
It's Olympic's quirky layout that will get you. Despite the removal of all those trees, the course is still replete with living, swaying hazards. The fairways are tight, the lies frequently uneven, the greens notoriously small, and more than half the holes have doglegs. On four of those, the fairway slopes away from the dogleg – the dreaded reverse camber.
And yes, the final 10 holes have been spruced up, just like the first six. No. 17 has been reduced from a par 5 to a par 4, most of the changes work the other way. The par-3 eighth, once considered a breather, has been bloated by 63 yards, and the 12th lengthened by more than 50. The fairway on No. 14 has been shifted left to bring an arroyo into play. "You miss it left," Love said, "and it'll be gone."
New tees on No. 16 can be played as long as 670 yards, which would make it the longest hole in U.S. Open history. Some of the hurdles are less obvious.
"One thing I haven't heard talked about a lot are these 'low-mow' areas they've put around about half the greens," Love said. "Sixteen has it to the left of the green, and 17 has it around to the right. Seventeen is mown all the way down to the pine trees there. If you miss right or push right, it will roll all the way down there."
Even alterations that could be construed as advantages might betray. Take the removal of those trees, and the overdue trimming of countless others. Yes, it gives the golfers more unobstructed lanes down the fairways. It also could make the course -– less than 1,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean in some places – windier.
And as Miller notes, the grass is now thicker under the trimmed trees, making it harder for golfers to shape their shots. "So I would say that it's a wash," he said, "the old trees being more bushy and now they trimmed them up so the course looks a lot more manicured."
All in all, the Lake Course, especially as recently reinvented, is everything a U.S. Open course should be – a stern and idiosyncratic test for the world's best golfers.
Strange, on a conference call with fellow ESPN analysts North and Paul Azinger, kept drifting back to those first six holes.
"Let me throw these at you," he said. "The first hole, par-4, 520 (yards), OK? Hole 2, hard dogleg to the right, sloping right to left, 428 uphill. 247(-yard), par-3 No. 3. No. 4, 438 uphill. No. 5, 598, par-4. That's all. (No.) 6 is 489. Are you kidding me? That's why the three of us don't try to qualify for the Open anymore. The worst thing that could happen is we would make it."