U.S. Open: Hole-by-hole analysis of Olympic Club

The third hole of The Olympic Club's Lake Course in San Francisco, Calif. as seen on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.
The third hole of The Olympic Club's Lake Course in San Francisco, Calif. as seen on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. ( USGA )

Thursday, June 14, 2012

As you’ll see this week at the U.S. Open, the hardest part of playing Olympic-Lake Course is keeping the ball in play. You’re constantly fighting the terrain and watching the ball roll out the “wrong way.”

Olympic Club has buried plenty of great champions.

In 1955, Ben Hogan fell apart down the stretch and eventually lost in a playoff to an unknown Iowa practice-range pro named Jack Fleck.

In 1966, Arnold Palmer squandered a seven-shot lead down the final nine and tied Billy Casper, who won the next day in a playoff. Scott Simpson was a surprise winner over Tom Watson in 1987 at Olympic. And in 1998, a future Hall-of-Famer lost his lead at Olympic as 54-hole leader Payne Stewart could not hold off Lee Janzen.

Maybe it’s too much to attribute all of that fate to Olympic’s design. But at a course where the ball can do some strange things, even the game’s best players struggle to maintain control and will find their best efforts thwarted by frustrating bounces. As Watson says of Olympic, “there are a lot of tee balls you’re hitting into fairway slopes. . . . If you’re cutting the ball into a left-to-right slope, I don’t care where you hit the fairway; you’re going to go into the short-cut rough. You’ve got to shape it into those fairways.”

The Olympic Club has tested its fair share of golfers with its reverse-camber fairways. Much of the same is expected at this week's U.S. Open says our Bradley Klein. Read his full story on what players will face in the fairways at Olympic.

But, first, check out Klein's hole-by-hole breakdown, giving you insight you won't be able to see on a television screen.

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No. 1, Par 4, 520 yards

This used to play as an easy par-5 but now sets up as a long par-4. The drive has to slide left to right to stay in the fairway and leave a clear second; from there the downhill approach needs to carry beyond two fore-bunkers placed well in front of the green. Anything landing on this green on a low trajectory or without a lot of spin will bound over or to the side and leave a really tough recovery.

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No. 2, Par 4, 428 yards

This is the first of half a dozen “reverse-camber” holes where you’re fighting gravity. This hole plays uphill and doglegs right but tilts sharply left. Good luck holding the fairway. The second shot confronts a raised, well-bunkered green; anything long here leaves one of the slickest downhill recoveries at Olympic.

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No. 3, Par 3, 247 yards

This is now Olympic’s most scenic hole thanks to extensive tree clearing that reveals the Golden Gate Bridge from the tee. The tee shot is steeply downhill to a narrow, green flanked on both side by long bunkers. The “miss” here is to the right since anything hit left of the green leaves you short-sided to a putting surface that slopes away

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No. 4, Par 4, 438 yards

This is the most severe of Olympic’s famous wrong-way holes; the fairway loops sharply left while the slope carries the ball away. It’s one of those places where you simply have to work the ball and hope you can prevent it from racing long right into heavy rough and/or tree cover. It’s not a bad idea to lay-up off the tee with a safely controlled drive, though you’ll be left with a long approach that is steeply uphill and basically blind.

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No. 5, Par 4, 498 yards

Here’s another variation of reverse camber, on a hole that bends right, tilts left and plays downhill, which makes it hard to hold the fairway on the side of the fairway that’s staring at you from the tee. The ideal line of approach skirts with the same trees (on the right) where Lee Janzen almost wrecked his ship – until the ball decided to fall out of the tree after he had presumed it to be lost.

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No. 6, Par 4, 489 yards

Straightaway, and the fairway looks receptive, until you realize that the fairway bunker on the left – the only such fairway hazard on the entire golf course — is in the gardens spot. It’s also been extended out enough that is attars strong tee shots like a vacuum cleaner.

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No. 7, Par 4, 288 yards

If ever there were evidence of gear shifting, you’ll find it on this little hole. It’s one of those reachable par-4s that you can barely hold in two! The green sits 20 feet above the tee and offers generous ground for a lay-up but narrow, well-bunkered terrain for a bold drive. It’s also hard to hold if you come at it from the rough – which will be maintained at 5-inches height all around this hole – you can forget about “graduated rough” here. If the hole location is up front it’s not a bad idea to blast away since recovery from the greenside bunkering is manageable. But assume more caution with a back flag on what amounts to a sliver of green that offers no support left or right.

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No. 8, Par 3, 200 yards

This is an entirely new hole and replaces a short little uphill par-3. Here you play a right-to-left shot to a green set in an amphitheatre that accommodates a throng of spectators. The safe play is to green-center; anything left leaves you short-sided.

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No. 9, Par 4, 449 yards

Another of those gravity-defying holes, and this time the heavily treed right side is simply deadly. Like many of Olympic’s holes, you shift gears in the shot, from a left-to-right drive to a right-to-left approach. By now it’ should be clear that if you can’t hit the ball both ways shift you can’t get around this place.

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No. 10, Par 4, 424 yards

Another slider that fights the terrain, and the big issue here is not hitting through the inviting part of the fairway (left) into the heavy rough. This is one of the few greens on the course that tips from front to back and so it requires control and loft for the ball to stay.

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No. 11, Par 4, 430 yards

The issue here is the green; slightly elevated and in two distinct tiers. If you play for the front half of the green you run the risk of coming up a tad short and having the ball roll back down the upslope; play it boldly to the back tier and you risk going over and having to pitch back down slope. This one of those greens where you can throw away the pin sheet, forget about hitting it close and just play for the center of the green.

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No. 12, Par 4, 451 yards

From the new back tee here, the drive has to thread a densely tree-lined chute that is sure to catch someone who gets a little tight and flinches.

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No. 13, Par 3, 199 yards

Uphill, over a pop-up bunker in front, to a perched green. Here, as with several holes at Olympic, there’s a new, tightly mowed down area around the green that will accelerate wayward approaches straying off course. Combined with some tree clearing and removal of understory here on the left, the hole now raises the specter for golfers who yank a tee shot that their golf ball could roll down into a dry wash on the left that was never previously a factor.

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No. 14, Par 4, 419 yards

That same hazard now potentially in play on No. 13 has become factor on the tee shot here thanks to a shift of the fairway dramatically to the left. Not only are the tress their more in play off the but anything hit low and hard could easily wind up in that dry creek bed. The fairway slopes that way, and with the green bunkered more aggressively on the high side right, the tendency is to want approach from the left, which brings everything in to play more on the drive.

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No. 15, Par 3, 154 yards

This is one of those all-or-nothing holes, a short-iron uphill par-3 to a small green protected tightly by deep bunkers and heavy rough all around. The tendency here is to over-think the shot because you’re trying to hit it over the raised front bunker but you also know that going long leaves you in even more trouble. The hardest shot in golf, whether on a putt or an iron, is to try hitting it far enough to get past the uphill but not so far that you put it long onto the down slope. This is where this little holes makes its living.

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No. 16, Par 5, 670 yards

A new back tee makes an already fearsome, banana-dogleg left hole even more ominous – and into the lengthiest hole in all of major championship golf. From the 670-yard markers, which they’ll use twice in the four grounds, the drive comes perilously close to overhanging trees and has to carry 250+ yards just to reach the fairway – no simple task in the notoriously heavy air here. It’s easy to snap it dead left here, as Arnold Palmer did in 1966, when he didn’t even find fairway until his third shot and still had over 200 yards to the green. A massive front-right bunker gobbles up more approaches than any other hazard on the golf course; it also creates an unconscious tendency in avoiding it to go long and left into what has now been cut down into a steep fall away recovery area.

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No. 17, Par 5, 522 yards

This is the last of the reverse camber holes. It used to be a long par-4 and now, as a short par-5 tempts golfers to play boldly if they can manage to find the elusive fairway that steers tee shots right. What used to be the mindless bail-out play short right of the green has been eliminated thanks to the very recent addition (March 2012!) of a bunker; now golfers have to commit either to laying way back or playing aggressively for the green. This brings into play more of Olympic’s short-grass surrounds, in his case so extensive around the right and back of the 17th green that some players will find themselves chipping back from the adjoining 18th hole.

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No. 18, Par 4, 344 yards

Here’s one of the sweetest little tough short par-4s found anywhere in golf. And, at 2,000 square feet, also one of the smallest greens in championship golf. All that counts is finding the fairway, then putting proper spin on a short-iron approach to a domed putting surface that seems repel balls short, long, or aside into steep flanking bunkers. Some really long hitters might have a go at this green from the tee – working under the theory that if you’re going to miss the green, you might as well do it on your first shot, not your second. The risk of having to recover from trees, a long front bunker, or thick rough will deter most – but not all – golfers. And it wouldn’t surprise anyone on the last day to see the tees moved up just enough to make such a risky play even more tempting. No one has ever eagled the last hole to win a major. Not yet, anyway.