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Big names descend on San Fran with Olympic dreams

Alex Dimond June 13, 2012




The 112th US Open takes place at Olympic Club in San Francisco this week, with Northern Ireland improbably - at least, for a country of its size - bidding for a third successive win.

Graeme McDowell started the 'trend' back in 2010 at Pebble Beach after showing remarkable grace under pressure over the closing holes, while his compatriot Rory McIlroy emulated his close friend's achievement (as if anyone could forget) with one of the most dominant performances in major history a year ago at Congressional.

This year, however, will be a test more akin to the one McDowell passed in 2010 than the one McIlroy ridiculed (finishing 16-under par) outside Washington in 2011. Olympic Club may not be a particularly long course, but it is tight and designed with small greens that means under-par scores will be devilishly hard to come by.

The tournament has been held around Olympic Club (not to be confused with Olympia Fields, where Jim Furyk won in one of the most boring majors back in 2003) on four previous occasions, and every time it has been a consistent ball-striker with a sharp short-game who has triumphed.

Interestingly, those wins have often come at the expensive of some true greats of the game. Back in 1955, Jack Fleck trumped the legendary Ben Hogan in a play-off, while 11 years later Billy Casper pulled the same trick on Arnold Palmer. 1987 saw Scott Simpson hold off Tom Watson over the final round while on the most recent visit, in 1998, Lee Janzen ensured Payne Stewart had to wait a little longer to win his domestic Open championship.

It is not a long course, but it demands accuracy off the tee and an impeccable touch around the greens. Players who can keep the ball on the short stuff with the driver and make no mistakes with wedge and putter in hand should prosper.




The Course

At 6,822 yards (with a 670-yard par-five), Olympic Club is a remarkably short course for the era we live in, where technology and player skill has led more and more courses to push for the 7,500-yard mark.

It is especially amazing when you consider that there is just one fairway bunker on the course - at the sixth - meaning players have fewer hazards than usual to worry about off the tee. Of course, what the course gives with one hand it takes away with the other - over 30,000 trees impinge on the fairways, ready to obstruct players if they get too far off line.

The unofficial bunker ban that appears to exist down the fairways is lifted around the unusually small, contoured greens - creating a constant test of short game skill for players. The greens have already earned rave reviews from players who have taken scouting trips to the course ahead of this week; but while the putting surfaces may be true, that only means poor strokes will be punished even harsher.


What you need to win

Like any major championship, ultimately a player has to be in form - regardless of the individual characteristics of his game - if he is to win the US Open. Congressional may have set up nicely for Rory McIlroy 12 months ago, but ultimately he won by the margin he did because he was a great player at the absolute top of his game.

Olympic, however, should play into the hands of a certain type of player. While Congressional responded for a player who hits a natural draw [McIlroy], Olympic tends towards a player who offers a controlled fade, but can turn it the other way if necessary.

In that sense it should not suit McIlroy, who appeared to be struggling with his stock fade shot last week at the St Jude Classic, while it will nicely suit Tiger Woods - who had his fade purring at Memorial, Rickie Fowler and Luke Donald, who only hits a marginal fade but has metronomic tempo with all his shots.

With small fairways, finding them will be a huge advantage but not the be-all and end-all - every player is going to miss a few fairways, so every player's recovery skills will be tested to one extent or another. Around the greens, however, those who cannot get up and down with regularity will be found out quickly. That is why it would be a surprise if Lee Westwood, say, outdid Luke Donald this week.


Who to watch

The top contenders

Jason Dufner has a winning habit © PA Photos
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Luke Donald
The world's best player right now and, crucially, finally playing at a major championship where the prodigious length of the course will not all-but rule him out of contention. Donald has been criticised in some quarters for his major performances since rising to the top of the world rankings but a lot of that criticism has been unwarranted. With a fine short game and precise putting stroke, if he comes into the tournament with a solid swing off the tee he should be there or thereabouts come Sunday.

Jason Dufner
The form horse coming into this tournament, having already won twice on the PGA Tour in 2012 and only narrowly missing out on a third. The Auburn graduate lost in a play-off in last season's US PGA and led at the halfway stage of the Masters - as a player with a similar temperament to two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen, he could be primed for a Janzen-esque victory.

Zach Johnson
Defeated Dufner to win on the PGA Tour in May, Johnson already has a major title under his belt - winning at a tricked-up Augusta that shared some similar conditions to what shall be presented this week. His putting comes and goes, but if it's working he is comfortable in contention.

The good bets

Matt Kuchar is a classy operator © PA Photos
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Matt Kuchar
Low amateur when the US Open was last in San Fran, Kuchar is in form (winning the Players Championship) and has a CV with a gaping hole in it - a major title. Now might be when he fills it.

Rickie Fowler
Forget the clothes, Fowler is the real deal on the course. He has the perfect style of play for the Olympic layout and has the right temperament for the big occasion - the only question is whether he is currently a bit burned-out after contending for a few PGA Tour titles and winning his first earlier this year.

Graeme McDowell
Not in the best of form - which has been the case pretty much since clinching the Ryder Cup in 2010 - but this is a course that should suit his eye and, of course, he has done it all before.

Jonathan Byrd
Played his way into contention at Memorial before his putting let him down, Byrd is a consistent player whose style seems better suited to the trying conditions of US Open courses than the birdie-bonanza of most tour stops.

The outside tips

Matteo Manassero needs to start performing in majors © Getty Images
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John Senden
Among the PGA Tour leaders in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, two characteristics that will give him a major advantage at Olympic Fields.

Rafael Cabrera-Bello
Started well at Pebble Beach two years ago, and is an infinitely better player these days. Not impossible that he places in the top ten (or higher) this week.

Matteo Manassero
Seve comparisons give a misleading impression of the young Italian's strengths - he's a technically-sound player who revels in finding fairways and greens. Still young, but he could really do with a breakout performance this week.

Also: Aaron Baddeley, Kevin Chappell.


Woods watch

Tiger Woods isn't a top tip this week © Getty Images
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The 14-time major champion (and three-time US Open winner) comes into the tournament on the back of a win, after triumphing once again at the Memorial Tournament at the end of May. Woods showed great control over his long game at Muirfield Village, but his putting was not quite up to scratch and, after missing a number of makeable attempts, needed a little bit of magic at the 16th to ultimately come up with another win.

It is always a risk to rule out Woods in a big event, but it does seem that this course does not particularly suit him. He remains a bit errant off the tee and, while his chipping is among the best about, he really isn't the putter he once was.

If he can rediscover that consistency with the short-stick then he will be a real threat but, in a tournament he was won thrice but hasn't always had a great relationship with, you sense a top 20 finish might just be about the best he can muster. The Open Championship, however, that might be a different matter...


Predictions

All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in...

Winning score: Two-under
Winning margin: One
Lowest round: 68
Low amateur: Jordan Spieth

Top European: Luke Donald
Top American: Jason Dufner
Top Rest of World: Aaron Baddeley

Winner: Luke Donald

You heard it here first. Or not.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk