2012 U.S. Open Viewer's Guide: From The Course To The Marquee Groups

DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 03: Tiger Woods celebrates after chipping in for birdie on the par 3 16th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance at Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 3, 2012 in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

A look at the 2012 U.S. Open, from the Olympic Club to the schedule and groups to watch as the tournament begins on Thursday.

The 2012 U.S. Open gets underway on Thursday, but before then golfers are hitting the course in San Francisco for their final preparations. This year, The Olympic Club -- located just south of downtown San Francisco -- plays host to the tournament and promises to put the world's best through their paces over the course of four grueling days.

Looking for everything you need to know about the tournament? Look no further.

The Tournament

The U.S. Open is called "Golf's Toughest Test" for a reason. For the most part, finishing at even-par can be seen as a good thing, though outliers such as Rory McIlroy's win last year do happen. The prevailing sentiment for quite some time has been that the USGA sets courses up to put players through the wringer and to induce high scores.

That's not quite true, but the course setup is a huge part of what makes the U.S. Open such a tough test. These are already difficult tracks, and when graduated rough penalizes misses -- the farther off the fairway, the deeper the rough -- the tournament becomes a test of both length and accuracy. One minor miss can throw a round into a tailspin at the snap of a finger.

The Course

This brings us to The Olympic Club. For the fifth time, and the first time since 1998, the Lake Course -- nestled between the ocean and Lake Merced -- will host the U.S. Open. And the course, like most that came before it, is a beast. At a par of 70 -- 34 out and 36 in -- and a length of just over 7,100 yards, it plays both long and narrow. The conditions are already shaping up to be firm and fast with the greens bordering just on the edge, just the way a U.S. Open should be.

The front-nine is, on paper, the more difficult test, with a difficult six-hole stretch awaiting players as soon as they step out of the clubhouse. In fact, the Lake Course features a 520-yard par-4 first hole; a hole converted from a par-5.

Coming in, back-to-back par-5s await players, with the 16th playing as the longest hole in US Open history at 670 yards when the back tees are used. The 18th is short -- just 344 yards -- but requires a well-struck tee shot into the fairway in order to set up a manageable uphill approach to a difficult green.

Then there are the fairways. On six holes, the fairway slopes the opposite direction of the track. In simple terms, this means a dogleg left with a fairway that slopes left-to-right. Try to cut the corner and the tee shot is liable to end up in the rough or worse. The slope, combined with fairways that are narrow, firm and fast, requires finesse over power, and the correct shot shape. Pick the wrong one and disaster is almost assured.

If a player is fortunate to keep their tee shot in the short grass on those six holes that employ fairways that slope the opposite direction as the shape of the hole, they'll likely be hitting a second shot off an uneven lie. Good luck!

Overall, The Olympic Club is already in prime shape -- in fact, the grounds crew has had to tone it back a bit as the tournament approaches. And if it plays out like one would expect, low scores will be hard to come by.

Who to Watch

The USGA always manages to come up with fun groupings, creating intriguing storylines for the first two days. This year is no exception as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson were paired together in the marquee group. We all know the Tiger and Phil story: their history is well-documented and the rivalry draws an incredible amount of interest. Throw Bubba Watson, the new darling, into the mix and you have a recipe for a gallery stacked 20-deep to watch the made-for-TV group.

But it's not all about Tiger, Phil and Bubba. Thanks to Dustin Johnson's FedEx St. Jude Classic win this past weekend, the "young guns" group is a formidable second option. Johnson will be paired with Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa, part of the next generation of golf, perhaps.

Rory McIlroy, last year's runaway U.S. Open winner, joins Luke Donald and Lee Westwood in another group filled with star power, especially among the European viewing audience. And though the fanfare doesn't quite match that of the feature group, McIlroy, Donald and Westwood make up the top three in the Official World Golf Rankings heading into the event.

A full list of first-round tee times can be found over at the usopen.com.

The Schedule

The U.S. Open schedule is simple and straightforward, much like every other major. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the course will be open for practice rounds, with golfers working on both the range and course throughout the day.

On Thursday, the real action begins, with players starting on the first and ninth tees beginning at 7:00 a.m. PT. The same holds true on Friday, when the groupings are reversed -- those who started on No. 9 will begin on No. 1 and vice versa.

For the weekend, the schedule thins out a bit, with play beginning around 8 a.m. and groups formed by order of finish, in a scoring sense, through the first two rounds of the tournament. The same holds true on Sunday, when play will begin at the same time as the day before and groups will, again, be reformed in reverse order by score -- lowest scores tee off last.

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