SAN FRANCISCO – Olympic Club teased us, just as it has for decades.
For three rounds of U.S. Open golf on the classic hillside golf course nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced, the sun shone, and the cypress and pine trees contrasted prettily with the blue sky above. The scene radiated a pleasantness, and even though the golf holes were brutally difficult, there was a sense of a party, a happening, a good time.
And then came Sunday.
The fog rolled in from the ocean, and rolled in hard. It wafted through the cypress and pines and hung low over the Lake Course. It snuffed out the sun. The final round of the 2012 U.S. Open would be played in a gloom, a moist overcast that foretold grim things ahead. The supernatural, historic forces that rule golf history here were in effect.
Olympic Club U.S. Opens are not joyous occasions, or coronations it turns out. History dictates that there will be blood, and in 2012, it would be that of Jim Furyk.
He needn't feel shame. This is how the script is written here. Ben Hogan lost a playoff to Jack Fleck at Olympic in 1955. Arnold Palmer blew a 7-shot lead here in 1966. Tom Watson gave away a back-nine lead to Scott Simpson in 1987. And Payne Stewart saw Lee Janzen zoom past him on Sunday, despite having trailed by as many as seven shots in 1998.
While Furyk is not a legend like Hogan or Arnie or Watson, he was the titan of the leaderboard on Sunday. He was the one-time PGA Tour Player of the Year, a U.S. Open champion, a man who was ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings for much of the past decade. He is a seven-time Ryder Cup team member who has won 16 times on the PGA Tour.
He was the man with the two-shot lead on the back nine, and now he is the latest to view Olympic's grueling layout as a cemetery with flagsticks.
"It was," he said afterward, trying to come to grips with three bogeys in his final six holes, "my tournament to win."
Furyk spoke in an antiseptic press area, in front of a handful of reporters who were gently poking and prodding his golfing corpse. Down the hill from the area, a 26-year-old rising star named Webb Simpson was being handed the U.S. Open trophy, only his third professional win, in only his fifth major start. Simpson's 68 meant the Wake Forest product had come all the way back from six shots back of Furyk earlier in the day. The memories of Janzen, the "other" Simpson in 1987, Billy Casper in 1966 and Fleck in 1955 hung in everyone's brains.
Fleck and Casper, in fact, were on the 18th green for Webb Simpson's ceremony, adding to the layers of history. If Olympic had a heart, Furyk would have stumbled into the Grill Room bar outside the interview area, only to find Arnie and Watson calling him over to a table, a cold one waiting to dull his pain.
"I don't know how to put that one into words," Furyk said. "I had my opportunities and my chances, and it was right there."
Though Simpson's hat trick of birdies on Nos. 6, 7 and 8 had caught Furyk's eye on the manual scoreboards dotting the Lake Course, and though Furyk's bogey on the par-3 14th left him tied with Simpson atop the leaderboard, Furyk arrived at the 16th tee in decent shape, knowing he had the birdie-able 17th ahead. Heck, he could even birdie 16 if he played it right. The gallery knew as much, and a fan shouted to Furyk, "Driver's seat, baby! Driver's seat!"
Where Hogan's demise was the thick rough left of 18, and where Payne Stewart rued a tee shot that came to rest in a divot, Furyk will always lament his tee shot on the 16th hole. The famously endless par-5 played at 671 yards on Saturday, then played a stunningly shorter 575 yards Sunday. USGA executive director Mike Davis threw a curve ball at the field, testing the players' preparedness and their ability to adjust. Furyk wasn't ready for it.
He admitted the yardage threw him off, and intimated it may have contributed to his awful 3-wood – yanked hard left, way hard left, some 200 yards into a grove of trees, Olympic Club jail.
"There's no way to prepare for a hundred yards [change]," Furyk said. "To get to a tee box where the fairway makes a complete 'L' turn … I was unprepared and didn't know exactly where to hit the ball off the tee.
"I just didn't handle it very well."
He added, "But the rest of the field had that same shot to hit today, and I'm pretty sure no one hit as [lousy] a shot as I did."
It was an awful shot at the worst time. Ghosts, golf gods, goblins in the fog, choose your description. Furyk met an Olympian grave.
That the mild-mannered Furyk would use a profanity in place of "lousy" indicated his level of frustration. The back nine began to betray Furyk's stoicism. His second at No. 12 fanned into a bunker and he took an air swing of anger with his golf club. He begged his tee shot at No. 15 to sit, bending his knees, pushing his palms downward as if asking a dog to stay. His tee shot on 16 led to an almost spastic reaction, a wild club drop, followed by another air swing of rage away from the tee box. His weak 4-iron at No. 17 killed his chance at birdie, and his shoulders slumped.
Afterward, he admitted the "taste of honey" of a back-nine lead made the pain that much worse. He marveled how his style of play – with a lead, pound fairways and greens and make somebody catch him – suited a U.S. Open advantage, and wondered how it went so wrong.
"One birdie wins the golf tournament," he said. "I've got wedges in my hand and reachable par-5s … I didn't close it out."
And when his last chance, an attempt to hit it close at the famous No. 18, in front of that gigantic natural amphitheatre of fans, leaked into a greenside bunker with an impossible lie, Furyk crouched over and took a faux bite of the shaft of his pitching wedge. Clearly, he was addled, disappointed, crushed, vexed.
He felt just like his forebears here, those big-name Sunday leaders who died a cruel and public U.S. Open death. The fog rolls on, and so does Olympic's legacy.
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