Olympic Club flexes USGA's muscles

Bubba Watson hits out of a bunker on

Bubba Watson hits out of a bunker on the second hole during the second round of the U.S. Open. (June 15, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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SAN FRANCISCO

The consensus among the players at the Olympic Club was that this U.S. Open is definitely no fun. The consensus among everyone else was, "We'll be the judge of that."

Really, the fun of the U.S. Open is watching the best golfers gasp and struggle. The U.S. Golf Association knows this and has built on this carnage craving for years. USGA officials like to say that their Open is the greatest test in golf, which is fine with most of us. Fact is, the USGA itself faced a huge test this year.

The association had to save face by making it a challenge to save par. Ever since the final-round parched-earth debacle at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the USGA has leaned toward its kinder side. Deep, punishing grass was replaced by "graduated" rough -- shaved shorter the closer you got to the fairway. Greens were fast, but not intimidating. Nobody was cursing at the setup or suggesting "USGA" was a four-letter word.

This was partly because of the weather (Bethpage, 2009) but it also gave the distinct feel that the USGA had gone softer than soggy greens. It all came to a head at Congressional outside Washington D.C. last year when Rory McIlroy finished with a record-setting 16 under par. Worse yet, it wasn't just a matter of one guy getting hot. The top 10 at Congressional scored a combined 66 under par.

"I think we all kind of knew that the USGA was going to come out firing this year and they haven't disappointed," Nick Watney said after he shot 5-over par 75 Friday to go 4 over through the first two rounds. "This is definitely a little more of what you expect coming into this tournament."

Maybe this isn't quite like 1974, when the USGA responded to Johnny Miller's final-round 63 at the 1973 Open at Oakmont by making Winged Foot a sadist's holiday. But it is not a walk in the park, either. Greens at the Olympic Club are hard and fast, and so are the fairways. The rough is fairly high and many holes turn one way while the fairway slopes the other way.

"Yeah, they set it up like a real classic U.S. Open," McIlroy said, his tone and body language revealing real classic U.S. Open bewilderment. He was headed home at 10 over, instead of being headed to a title at 11 under, which he had been through two rounds last year.

By the looks of it, 2012 will go down as the year the U.S. Open was the U.S. Open again, in all its misery. "My day was equally unenjoyable as yesterday," Graeme McDowell said after he shot 72 Friday to finish 1 over. "It's just tough to have fun out there, I've got to be honest with you."

Mind you, he was not complaining. He won the Open two years ago and thinks it ought to be tough. He is on the same page as Tiger Woods, who said, "I've always preferred the conditions to be difficult."

Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, said that the Open is meant to be a mental and physical test. "That's what makes the U.S. Open unique. That's what the USGA has built our brand on," he said. "I think that if fans had to see this 52 weeks of the year, it probably wouldn't be good. But to see it once a year -- at least the feedback we've gotten for decades and decades, is that it's something fans want to see."

No need to apologize. Players come to the Open expecting headaches. "Last year didn't remind me of a U.S. Open," former champion and current contender Jim Furyk said, "because they basically lost the greens and they were a lot slower and softer than you usually see."

Woods said, "This is not like it was next year."

That was the best compliment he could give. Let the angst and the fun resume.