San Francisco – The official countdown to the 2012 U.S. Open Championship commenced Monday on two fronts thousands of miles apart.
At The Olympic Club before more than 200 reporters, USGA and club officials – headed by USGA President Glen D. Nager and Executive Director Mike Davis – kicked off the promotion of the 112th U.S. Open with media-day festivities that included a conference call with defending champion Rory McIlroy.
Some 2,700 miles to the east, the road to golf’s toughest test started in earnest with the first of 109 U.S. Open 18-hole local qualifiers getting underway at Montaup Country Club in Portsmouth, R.I., where Lucas Lee, Brad Valois and Josh Biren each shot 1-under 69 to earn the three available spots to move on to sectional qualifying on June 4.
The USGA accepted 9,006 entries for this year’s championship – the fourth-most in U.S. Open history – and 8,527 of those golfers (94.7 percent of applicants) will be competing in local qualifiers between April 30 and May 17, hoping to become one of the 550 players who advance to the 36-hole sectional stage. Eleven U.S.-based sectional qualifiers are scheduled for June 4, with two international sectional qualifiers set for Japan and England on May 21 and May 28, respectively.
This will be the fifth U.S. Open contested on the Lake Course at The Olympic Club – and ninth USGA championship overall – and the first since 1998, when Lee Janzen rallied to edge Payne Stewart by one stroke.
Those who watched or competed in 1998 will find a much different Lake Course at this year’s Open, and not just because the 7,170-yard, par-70 layout will play about 373 longer than it did in 1998.
Significant changes have been made, including an entirely new and longer par-3 eighth hole, and the switch of the first hole from a relatively easy par 5 to a highly challenging, 520-yard par-4. The 17th hole, a par 4 for every previous USGA championship at The Olympic Club, will now be an uphill par 5, giving the course consecutive par 5s (No. 16 has always been a long par 5) near the finish. Grouped with the short par-4 18th hole (which measures 344 yards), the potential is there for a dramatic finish for players and spectators.
“I’ve seen one of my predecessors, Frank Hannigan, quoted a few times saying, ‘Something magical always happens when we come to The Olympic Club for a national championship,’ ” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who oversees course setup for the U.S. Open. “Think back to the 1981 U.S. Amateur that a relative unknown Nathaniel Crosby won. You think about the past National Opens that have been played here… It truly is a wonderful place to have a national championship for a whole multitude of reasons.”
Davis and USGA Vice President Thomas O’Toole Jr., the chairman of the Championship Committee, outlined the parameters for the 112th U.S. Open, stressing that they expect the course to play firm and fast, thanks to Northern California’s idyllic early summer climate. O’Toole said the USGA will continue to follow the 14-point U.S. Open course setup philosophy first established in 2004 by then-Championship Committee chairman Walter Driver.
“This philosophy is that the U.S. Open should be the most rigorous, the most difficult, yet fair test, in championship golf,” said O’Toole. “[It’s] an examination which tests the player’s physical capabilities, including all shot-making. It also tests the player’s mental capabilities and tenacity. The conclusion: We want well executed shots rewarded and poorly executed shots penalized.”
That risk/reward thought process is one reason why the USGA chose to switch the par for holes 1 and 17. After watching previous Opens contested at Olympic and analyzing the architecture of the two holes, Davis made the decision to make the downhill opening hole a par 4 and the uphill 17th a par 5 (Olympic members have always played 17 as a par 5).
In addition, the USGA recently asked – and paid for – the club to install a fairway bunker on No. 17, adding to the hole’s risk/reward element. Because the fairway was widened 50 yards short of the green to allow for a closely mown area to the right of the green, the USGA felt it was necessary to add the bunker.
“When we came back in February, we looked at that area that used to be rough for past U.S. Opens and said, ‘Oh no,’” said Davis. “Given the fact that this green slopes left to right and back to front, this is a great layup area now … where they can pitch from a relatively flat lie. As we told the club, we paid for it to go in and we will pay for it to go out post-U.S. Open.”
Davis went on to explain that more putts are likely to fall at this year’s Open, thanks to Olympic replacing all its Poa annua greens with a hybrid bentgrass. In the past, the Poa would creep in later in the day, creating bumpier putting surfaces such as what the competitors saw at Torrey Pines in 2008 and Pebble Beach two years ago. The greens are expected to measure between 11.5 and 12.5 feet on the Stimpmeter, the same speed as in 1998.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy, who had just arrived for the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., spent 20 minutes on a conference call fielding questions. He talked about how his disappointing showing at the Masters earlier this month has given him some renewed vigor for U.S. Open preparations. The Northern Irishman took a couple of weeks off after Augusta to spend time in Europe and with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, before getting back to work recently in Florida.
“There are a couple of things I need to work on that probably prevented me from playing my best golf [at the Masters],” he said. “But I feel that it’s back on the right track and I feel like I am getting more comfortable with it and looking forward to getting back and playing some competitive golf this week.”
McIlroy has yet to play The Olympic Club; he was just 9 years old the last time the U.S. Open was contested here. But after hearing the executive director detail some of Olympic's playing characteristics, McIlroy had reporters chuckling when he said, “I feel like I just played a practice round listening to Mike [Davis] there.
“I’ll go up there the week before and familiarize myself with the place,” said McIlroy, who turns 23 on Friday. “From what I’ve heard, it’s a really good setup and I know they’ve made some changes to it this year for the U.S. Open, but I’m excited to get up there and see what it’s like.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.