SAN FRANCISCO - A year after Rory McIlroy took Congressional by storm, The Olympic Club is ready to remind the world's best golfers what a grind the US Open is supposed to be.
"This is probably the hardest test that we play all year," said Tiger Woods, whose 14 major titles include three US Open crowns.
The US Golf Association likes it that way, and in Olympic they have a venue that seems sure to erase the memory of McIlroy's 16-under par winning total last year at Congressional.
"The first six holes are going to just be brutal," USGA executive director Mike Davis promised gleefully in April.
Since Olympic last hosted the US Open, the course has been lengthened by 373 yards. Each green has been rebuilt, and while the new bent-grass surfaces are smoother, they will also be firmer and faster.
In the four prior Opens here, the 520-yard downhill first hole played as a par-five. This time, it's a par-four.
Four of the next five are par-fours that measure an average of 463 yards, while the third is a demanding downhill 247-yard par-three.
The 288-yard par-four seventh is reckoned the first chance for players to catch their breath, but American Steve Stricker said there's really little to choose from in terms of difficulty between any of the first six and any other holes on the course.
"To me, they're all that difficult," Stricker said. "Number one is really no different than number 12. They're long, they're hard. Even the short ones, if you don't get in play off the tee you're going to make them difficult."
The only two par-fives on the 7,170-yard, par-70 layout are 16 and 17, with 18 an enticing 344-yard par-four.
"I believe you play 15 holes of really tough, tough golf," said Phil Mickelson, a four-time major champion and a five-time US Open runner-up. "And you finally get your first par-five, and it's the toughest hole on the course.
"I think 16 will play more over-par stroke average than any hole on the course."
No. 17, Mickelson said, provides an exciting opportunity for eagle -- with the risk of a bogey or worse.
"I think there could be a big swing on 17," he said.
As for 18, Mickelson said, "You think it's a nothing hole, but you hook it in the rough and you make double (bogey) and you lose the Open.
"It's really a great finish."
World number two McIlroy knows that "last year was a little bit of an exception."
In addition, his build-up to the defence of his first major title included three missed cuts.
That shaky spell, coupled with a victory for Woods at the US PGA Tour's Memorial two weeks before the Open put the spotlight firmly on the American superstar and his bid for his first major title since the 2008 US Open.
Luke Donald, who regained the world number one spot with a victory in the European Tour's PGA at Wentworth, will try to parlay his recent strong form into a first major title.
The same goes for fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, who claimed his first tournament victory in more than a year at the Nordea Masters on Saturday.
Recent history is on the side of those seeking to break into the ranks of major winners. Golf's last seven Grand Slam titles have gone to first-time major winners.
"It is a challenge," Donald said. "You're not going to be able to fluke it around this course. You've just to stand up there and play really well."
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