SAN FRANCISCO —
It is all Rory’s fault.
With every toothy, this-is-easy grin from Rory McIlroy one year ago at the U.S. Open — and there were hundreds as he won the event at 16 under par — an unsmiling sense of dread developed in the greater community of golf pros who knew that this year’s Open would become a punishing payback.
Twenty players were under par last year at the Congressional Country Club. Eighteen more were no worse than 2 over par.
Oh, boy. Get ready for four days of reckoning at The Olympic Club in 2012.
Those fears were not unfounded.
“I think we all knew the USGA was going to come out firing,” said Nick Watney, one of the 153 players in the 156-man field who were over par at the midway point of this year’s tournament. “And they haven’t disappointed. What did you expect? It’s certainly what we all expected.”
Tiger Woods said: “Look, this isn’t Congressional. This is really hard. Shot after shot.”
To be fair, the idea that the U.S. Open would have playing conditions as difficult as any other golf competition was not conceived in 2012, nor was it a mindset adopted in the previous century. The U.S. Open was meant to be a stern test of golf — maybe the sternest test — since the 1800s.
“It is one of the things that has always set the event apart,” said Mike Davis, the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association.
A series of events conspired to make the conditions at The Olympic Club so taxing, rather than a conspiracy from golf’s leaders to wreak vengeance on the world’s best golfers for McIlroy’s unabashed success.
For starters, the Open’s visit to Congressional heralded the first of three consecutive stops at old-style, traditional golf courses. (Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia will host the event next year.) These choices, especially Congressional and Merion, raised concerns that their layouts were either not challenging enough or not long enough for modern golfers using modern equipment.
That 20 players were under par last year — no player under par might be more typical — ramped up the pressure to guarantee that the competition at Olympic was in no way as forgiving. Because two successive unduly merciful championships would only heighten the focus on Merion, which does not need the added attention. It is hosting its first U.S. Open since 1981.
The other, perhaps pivotal factor was the weather. Congressional was tamed by rain before and during the championship, making the greens soft and vulnerable. Returning to the Bay Area, where it rarely rains in mid-June, the USGA knew it had a predictable weather pattern that assured a workable plan for a course that would seem difficult in the practice rounds then turn much more dastardly once play began.
And that is what has happened.
“The golf course was a totally different animal Thursday than it was during Wednesday’s practice round,” said Luke Donald, the world’s No. 1 player, who did not make the cut after two over-par rounds. “We just don’t play golf courses this firm. We don’t play anything close to this.”
Few players, including Donald, were complaining about the course setup. But its unrelenting ferocity might have surprised.
“It just keeps coming at you,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion, who played the first two rounds in a tidy 1 over par. “You get worn down. Every little mistake costs you.”
Asked Friday if he would like to send a message to the USGA’s Davis, McDowell all but whispered, “Be nice to us.”
Watney likened the Open at Olympic to a boxing match, which is not a comparison made every day on the genteel PGA Tour.
“It is like boxing in that you know you’re not going to win every round,” Watney said. “You’re good one round, then getting beat up the next round. And sometimes in the middle of a round you’re in trouble, and you just try to hold on until your head clears.”
David Toms, one of the midway point leaders, said the Olympic setup required the players to be imaginative even if that sometimes backfired.
“It’s a fair test but it will make you do some crazy things,” Toms said. “Like hit a shot to a front pin from 220 yards where you try to land it short because you know if you land it on the green, the ball will run off the back.
“Except when you do land it short, sometimes it doesn’t get there. So it can make you kind of silly sometimes.”
Short and safe might beat the alternative — just ask Woods. His shot to the 17th green Friday landed well in front of the hole, then ran off the back of the green and 30 yards down a side hill. He made par only because he was fortunate not to be blocked by several trees in the vicinity. Can anyone leading the championship expect to be so lucky with the title on the line late today?
One thing is certain: McIlroy will not have to worry about any such fate. He did not make the cut and hurriedly and somberly packed a bag, dashing from the Olympic Club as several dozen golfers remained to slash and flail in his wake.