SAN FRANCISCO –- Five things you need to know on the eve of the U.S. Open:
1. BACK ON TRACK?: The defending champion arrives at Olympic Club off a seventh-place showing at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. McIlroy’s Memphis finish may not have pleased him – he made double-bogey on the final hole after hitting his tee shot into the water – but 71 strong holes were a nice consolation, considering he’d missed his previous three cuts. McIlroy finished three shots behind winner Dustin Johnson at TPC Southwind.
“It was important for me,” McIlroy said. “That was the whole reason to go to Memphis last week, was to try to get some competitive golf and to feel like I shot a couple of good scores. And I saw some really positive signs out there.
“I definitely feel more comfortable about my game going into this week (than) if I hadn’t have played.”
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2. THREE OF A KIND: McIlroy will tee off at 1:29 p.m. Thursday. He’s paired with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood in a grouping of the world’s top three players. It’s an impressive collection of talent, but probably not the group that will garner the most attention during the Open’s first round.
No, most eyes will be on Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, who tee off at 7:33 a.m. Woods, seeking his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, is coming off a victory at Memorial. As we saw at Augusta, he’s still unpredictable as he undergoes swing changes with Sean Foley. Mickelson is seeking his first Open title after a record five runners-up, most recently in 2009. Watson, the Masters champion, said, “It’s going to be like Sunday at the Masters, huge galleries.”
Watson is still adjusting to life as a father and major champion, but there’s one aspect of Olympic Club that suits him. “You have to curve it more off the tees here than any other golf course that we play,” Woods said.
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3. ROUGH START: Don’t be upset if your favorite player gets off to a poor start at Olympic Club. The course’s first six holes make for a brutal opening stretch. Watson played those holes 2 over in a practice round, “and I made some good par putts,” he said
“If you can get through there (even-par), it’s like you’re shooting well under par, almost like you birdied all the holes,” Watson said. “If I shot 2 over every single day in the four days, I’d be pretty happy.”
Olympic Club’s first hole, a par-5 in the first four U.S. Opens at Olympic, will play as a 520-yard par-4. No. 2 is an uphill 428-yard, par-4 with a fairway that narrows at 270 yards, forcing many players to lay back off the tee. That’s followed by a 247-yard par-3 with a green well-protected by bunkers. The fourth hole is an uphill 438-yard, par-4 with a fairway that slopes severely from left-to-right, making it difficult for tee shots to stay in the short grass. The fifth and sixth holes are par-4s of 498 and 489 yards, respectively.
“I’ve heard that first six come up a few times,” Steve Stricker said. “But I kind of chuckle because they’re all pretty good.”
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4. WHAT A FINISH: Players will have a chance to end their rounds on a high note, though. Nos. 16 and 17 are Olympic Club’s only par-5s, while the 18th is a 344-yard par-4 with a green whose slope has been softened since the 1998 debacle. Players have an opportunity to pick up a couple birdies on this closing trio.
“It gives you a chance to finish off a round,” Woods said. “You’re trying to make a bunch of pars throughout most of the day, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to change gears.
“If you hit two good shots into 16 you’re going to have a wedge in there, which you should make birdie. Same thing on 17. And same thing on 18. You have three holes back-to-back either you’re chipping, you’re wedging, so you’re going to have to make some birdies there, absolutely.”
This is a U.S. Open, though, so there are no easy holes. The 16th has been lengthened to 670 yards, making it the longest par-5 in U.S. Open history. Watson, the PGA Tour’s leader in driving distance, said he still had 60 yards remaining to 16 after hitting driver-driver. Mickelson said he has yet to have an approach shorter than 200 yards into the 16th. Players who drive in the rough on the severe dogleg-left will struggle to reach the green in three. “I believe that you play 15 holes of really tough, tough golf,” Mickelson said. “And you finally get your first par-5 and it’s the toughest hole on the course.”
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5. KUCHAR’S RETURN: Matt Kuchar returns to Olympic Club, where 14 years ago he was a grinning amateur who charmed fans and contended for a major. He finished 14th at the 1998 Open at Olympic, the year after he won the U.S. Amateur. Kuchar is back this year after contending at the year’s first major and winning the largest title of his career, The Players Championship.
“That still amazes me to be 14 years ago,” Kuchar said. “I remember finishing rounds of golf and just being flat-out exhausted.”
Kuchar, who’s 25th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy and 10th in greens in regulation, has a good recent Open record. He was 14th last year and sixth in 2010.