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Olympic endeavor

A year ago, Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional in record fashion, finishing at 16 under. No one expects scores to be anywhere near that this year, though, as the Olympic Club serves up a challenge that surely ranks among the toughest.

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Olympic endeavor
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Olympic endeavor

At 7,170 yards, the Olympic Club is hardly the longest U.S. Open venue in the 100-plus year history of the event.

Length doesn't always equal difficulty, though, and there is plenty of the latter weaved throughout the Sam Whiting-designed par-70 layout that rests along the hills in the southwest corner of downtown San Francisco.

"We've got probably the hardest six holes ever starting out at an event," said Tiger Woods.

That's hardly hyperbole.

The 520-yard opening hole will be played as a par 4 (it was a par 5 in the four previous U.S. Opens held there) with a fairway that's just 29 yards wide.

Two holes later is what the USGA's Mike Davis calls "the hardest par 3 on the course." Four bunkers protect the 247-yard hole, where the green slopes front to back and away to the right.

The fourth and fifth holes are the epitome of what helps make tree-lined Olympic such a difficult and quirky course as the fairways cant in the opposite direction of the dogleg.

"Mentally, it will be interesting to see how the players actually deal with that," Davis said of the first six holes. "If you're trying to play a fade, for example, assuming you're a right-handed player, off the tee at No. 4, good luck at trying to keep it in the fairway.

"If you can get through those 1 or 2 over par, I can promise you're going to be beating most of the field."

A year ago, Rory McIlroy won at Congressional in record fashion, finishing in 16 under. Much of that had to do with rain and humidity softening Congressional Country Club in suburban Washington D.C.

While San Francisco is known for wildly changing weather in the summer months, no one expects scores to be anywhere near that low this year.

Steve Stricker was in the field the last time the U.S. Open was held at Olympic Club, in 1998 when Lee Janzen won there.

"It was (survival)," said Stricker, who recently watched a replay of the tournament on television. "I played with Lee, and I can remember how well he played. But just to watch the guys just struggle hitting it on the green just to make pars was pretty amazing."

Payne Stewart led at 4 under after opening with a 66 that year, but the winning total ended up at even par.

"It's just one of those courses," Stricker continued. "The fairways slope, it's tough to get it in there. You've got to work the ball against the hill sometimes."

Dustin Johnson was just shy of his 14th birthday when Olympic last played host to the U.S. Open, but he remembers losing in the U.S. Amateur there a half-dozen years later.

"It's tough," Johnson said. "I know they've made some changes; from what I remember, it has small greens, and they were firm, and it's kind of hard to hit the fairways. It's going to be like any Open. You're going to have to drive it straight and hit good iron shots."

In addition to the opening hole now being played as a par 4, the 17th has gone from a par 4 to a par 5 -- "This time we wanted to try something a little bit different and say can we make a short par 5 that is truly risk/reward," Davis said. "That makes the player think off the tee."

At just 505 yards, the penultimate hole is certainly reachable in two -- provided you hit the fairway. It's another of the holes where the dogleg (left) is opposite the direction of the slope of the fairway (right).

If you miss the green in two, it's easy enough for a player to see his next shot roll back off the green because the putting surface, which slopes severely from back to front, now features a closely mown area to the right and behind it.

In all, seven greens have shaved banks around them and there are eight new tee boxes with 373 more total yards spread throughout the course.

The par-3 eighth hole is also completely new. It still plays uphill but is 60 yards longer and plays to a narrow green with a false front.

There are, however, opportunities to score -- especially late in the round with two of the final three holes being par 5s.

And at just 294 yards, the par-4 seventh is reachable off the tee.

Still, if history is any indication the U.S. Open will again be a grind.

When Matt Kuchar last played at Olympic Club, he was coming off being the low amateur at the Masters -- an honor he again achieved at the U.S. Open with a tie for 14th. It didn't come without a hefty price tag, though.

"I remember my rounds at the Masters feeling like I was walking on clouds, feeling like I had so much fun," Kuchar said. "At Olympic Club I was more, 'Boy, I'm glad this round is over with, I don't know if I can take anymore punishment.'"

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