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Inside the Ropes: Get ready for "Survivor: The Olympic Club"

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The Olympic Club always figured to be a formidable test in the 112th U.S. Open this week, but now it's looking like an absolute beast.

Blame it on Rory McIlroy.

The United States Golf Association considers its premier event the most difficult test of golf in the world, but when McIlroy torched Congressional Country Club last year with a score of 16-under-par to win by eight strokes over Jason Day of Australia, you knew the USGA would get tough.

Day's score of 8-under would have been good enough to win 46 of the last 50 U.S. Opens, and the USGA didn't care than rain in Bethesda, Md., that week had much to do with the low scores.

"It's going to be one heck of a test," Tiger Woods said after playing a practice round at the Olympic Club in 49-degree San Francisco weather two weeks ago, five days before his dramatic victory in the Memorial Tournament.

"Over the years, not too many people have finished under par in this event (at the Olympic Club). I think this is going to be another one of those championships."

It's likely to be golf's version of a TV reality show, "Survivor: The Olympic Club."

In the four previous U.S. Opens on the famed Lake Course, the lowest winning score was Scott Simpson's 3-under-par 277 when he won in 1987. Billy Casper shot 278 in 1966, tied with Arnold Palmer, whom he beat in a playoff; Lee Janzen equaled par when he won at Olympic in 1998; and Jack Fleck shot 287 to tie Ben Hogan in 1955 before beating him in a playoff the next day.

And the test starts on the first tee.

"This absolutely will be the hardest start for any U.S. Open I can think of," said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA. "If you can get through (the first six holes in) one- or two-over-par, I can promise you, you're going to be beating most of the rest of the field."

When the members play the Lake Course, the first hole is a relatively easy, downhill 520-yard, par-5 that can be reached in two shots by many players.

However, the USGA has turned it into the longest par-4 on the course for the second major of the year, after many players were able to get off to a running start with a birdie the first four times the U.S. Open was played there.

Reportedly, Woods hit driver, four-iron to reach the green during that practice round.

That means many players will be deep-sixed right out of the box.

"They are the toughest six holes to start out any championship that I've ever played," said Woods, who has captured three U.S. Opens and 14 major titles. "There's no break."

The USGA has had a history of taking things personally.

After Johnny Miller blistered rain-softened Oakmont on Sunday in 1973 with an 8-under-par 63 that was the lowest score in major championship history and won with a score of 5-under as one of five players to finish in red numbers, revenge came quickly.

Hale Irwin won with a score of 7-over the next year in what was called the "Massacre at Winged Foot," where the word was that the guys in the USGA's blue blazers were embarrassed the year before.

When Jim Furyk captured our national championship with a score of 8-under in 2003 at Olympia Fields and Vijay Singh shot 63 in the second round, the USGA again made things difficult the following year.

Shinnecock Hills was a challenge all four days, but especially on Sunday, when the greens were not watered after the third round and a windstorm that hit the course made the greens nearly impossible to hold or putt.

Retief Goosen was virtually the only one to figure things out on his way to victory. The average score on Sunday was 78.72, and 28 of the 66 players couldn't break 80. Not one player broke the par of 70.

"I think (the bluecoats) topped themselves this year," Jerry Kelly said with disgust.

When Woods won by a record 15 strokes at 12-under in 2000 at Pebble Beach, the USGA apparently realized it was only one great player destroying the course, so things were relatively benign the next year at Southern Hills.

As difficult as the Lake Course is, it's been heaven for underdogs.

Fleck, a little-known municipal-course pro from Davenport, Iowa, beat Hogan in the greatest golf upset since Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline.

Palmer was in the process of being passed by Jack Nicklaus as the best player in the game when he blew a seven-stroke lead after nine holes in the final round and lost the next day to Casper, a great player in his own right but not quite in Arnie's class.

Simpson, something of a journeyman, outplayed the best player in those days, Tom Watson, to win by one stroke.

Even though Janzen captured two U.S. Opens, he was considered the underdog against Payne Stewart, who claimed three major titles before his death in a plane crash at the age of 42 in 1999.

And no matter who is the last man standing this week, the winner probably will be the Lake Course. Again.

Exactly the way the USGA wants it.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: The 112th United States Open on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, noon-3 p.m. EDT on ESPN, 3-5 p.m. EDT on NBC and 5-10 p.m. EDT on ESPN; Saturday and Sunday, 4-10 p.m. EDT on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Rory McIlroy bounced back from a final-round collapse in the Masters to post four rounds in the 60s at Congressional and record a record-breaking eight-stroke victory over Jason Day of Australia. The 22-year-old became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones claimed the title at the age of 21 in 1923, and the kid from Northern Ireland did it with a score of 16-under-par 268, both records. McIlroy was greeted behind the final green by his father, Gerry, who worked three jobs so his son could pursue his golf career, and by his pal Graeme McDowell, also from Northern Ireland, who captured the U.S. Open a year earlier at Pebble Beach.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Montreal Championship at Vallee du Richelieu Vercheres in Sainte-Julie, Quebec, Canada, on June 22-24.

TV: Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m. EDT, and Sunday, 7-9:30 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: John Cook closed with a 6-under-par 66 at Fontainebleau Golf Club in Blainville, Quebec, to claim his third Champions Tour victory of the season and the eighth of his career by three strokes over Lu Chien-soon of Taiwan. Cook, who finished one shot behind Larry Mize a year earlier at Fountainbleu, was in the lead much of the way, opening with a 9-under-par 63 and playing the weekend in 66-66, carding only three bogeys over 54 holes. Cook, who won 11 times on the PGA Tour, recorded a score of 21-under 195, both tournament records.

LPGA TOUR: Manulife Financial LPGA Classic at Grey Silo Golf Course in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, June 21-24.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Inaugural event.
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