SAN FRANCISCO -- Brutal. Impossible. Bordering on unfair. These and any number of similar phrases could be used to describe The Olympic Club, site of the 2012 U.S. Open. And they wouldn't be wrong: The course, set up to the USGA's typical unforgiving standards for the second major of the year, is the "toughest test in golf" for a reason.
But it's hard to get a feel for just how difficult the course is until seeing it in person. Flyovers, videos and still shots simply don't do it justice. The undulations -- both on fairways and greens -- are extreme. The course layout is somewhat unconventional, likely to throw players off. And the small details -- the way greens funnel down into less-than-straightforward chipping areas and fairways that punish the wrong shot selection -- are, in a word, devilish.
With that in mind, here are a few bullet points from the course on Tuesday.
- I wondered how difficult the finishing holes -- 16, 17 and 18 -- would be, so I decided to find out for myself on Tuesday. Thus far, the spotlight has been on the first six holes at The Olympic Club, a brutal stretch that can quickly derail a round before it truly gets started. But after following a few groups around as they played the last three, it's clear how much of a test the stretch run will be.
- An example: No. 17, a seemingly reachable par-5 at 522 yards, looked like a scoring hole on paper. But standing along the fairway around the landing area, the difficulty of the hole came into focus. As Jason Day stood over his ball on the left side of the fairway, I couldn't see a thing standing in the right rough. The hole funnels to the right side, which then drops off a cliff, essentially. Oh, and there's the left-to-right wind that reared its head on 17, as well.
- Players were hitting fairway metals into the 17th green, with the prevailing wind both hurting and pushing left-to-right. Getting the ball to stop on the green is much easier said than done, and anything long or right is penalized severely. As an exercise, Day dropped a ball near the fringe on the 17th green. He watched it roll all the way down into the rough near the front of the 18th tee box, then tried all sorts of different pitches to get it back up -- there's also trees surrounding the green, making a flop shot that much more difficult. The elevated greens guarded by shaved grass are no joke, and an up-and-down is no easy task.
- The first of the back-to-back par-5s -- No. 16 -- has also been hogging the attention, simply because of its length. At 670 yards from the back tees, it's the longest par-5 in U.S. Open history. But throw the length out for a moment: The hole is more of a geometry problem than anything else. From tee to green, the 16th fairway arcs from right-to-left. As a three-shot par-5, players are working out where to place their tee shots in order to set up a second shot that leaves them a third shot with a manageable angle into a green protected by a bunker front-right. The chain of shots each player uses is a subtle but interesting thing to keep an eye on.
- And then there's the finishing hole. No. 18 seems simple and straightforward: It is, essentially, a straight par-4 measured at a mere 344 yards. But standing on the tee, players are staring down a sliver of a fairway with thick rough lining each side -- the play off the tee for most will be an iron. The landing area is in somewhat of a hole, with players firing a blind shot at a green elevated a good 30 feet above the fairway. And because the green, which isn't all that big in the first place, slopes back-to-front, a pin placement near the front edge almost ensures a lightning quick putt.
- There's a combination of factors in play at The Olympic Club that leads me to believe scores will be high. The difficulty of the course is obvious -- firm and fast fairways that can send a ball in any direction, small greens and the USGA's traditional deep rough. The elevation changes also cannot be understated -- many of the holes will change elevation significantly at least once, and sometimes more than that. Add in the wind, which was, and still is, blowing quite hard in San Francisco, and it's a recipe for a course that could frustrate the world's best.
On Wednesday, players will run through their final preparations, including more time on the practice range and green, as well as another wave of practice rounds. We'll be back with more from The Olympic Club throughout the day.