The first six holes at The Olympic Club, the site of the 2012 U.S. Open, have been the overwhelming topic of the days leading up to the season’s most mentally and physically challenging tournament.
It seemed like whenever the topic was brought up to the world’s best this week, it was followed by the words “difficult,” “test” or “challenge.”
And it will be all that and more this week.
“I think that the first six, if you play them for four straight days even par, you're going to be picking up just a boat load of shots. They're just difficult,” Tiger Woods said at a press conference on Tuesday.
That seems to be the overwhelming consensus from the players this week. The first six holes are going to be the biggest challenge of the day’s round, and finishing the stretch around par will give that player a terrific boost towards winning this championship.
“I think even is a good score -- 1‑over is acceptable,” Phil Mickelson said. “It's certainly challenging. But the way it's set up gives you an opportunity to play them. They're not unplayable, by any means.”
Both Woods and Mickelson, along with 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, will be starting their first round of the week on Thursday starting on the 9th hole -- far away from the opening six holes.
“This is a long grind. We're teeing off of No. 9, so we don't get to play obviously the first six holes until it's basically our back nine,” Woods said.
The first hole at The Olympic Club, which will be played by Woods, Mickelson and Watson on Thursday as the 11th hole of their opening round, is a 520-yard par-4 dogleg right with a bit of a downhill slope on the approach shot. The hole usually plays as a par-5, but was converted into a par-4 for the challenge of the U.S. Open.
“The first hole, it's wide open in front. If you can just find the fairway, you really don't have to hit it far. It will chase on to the green,” Mickelson said. “You should be able to make 4 there.”
The second hole, an uphill par-4 stretching 428 yards, is arguably the players’ best chance at scoring on the first six holes. If the pin location is accessible and away from the overhanging sand trap blocking the front portion of the green, the players should be able to put their approximate 150-yard approach shot into a blind green within birdie range.
However, the third hole has obviously been the players’ main concern this week. The downhill 247-yard par-3 is sealed on the left and right portions of the green with bunkers and appears as a very intimidating approach shot to one of the smaller greens on the course.
“Certainly, 3 is the difficult hole. The critical thing about 3 is picking the right club,” Mickelson said. “If you can pick the right club on 3, you're going to use the same club on 8 and the same club on 13. So it's really a big first pull of the club.”
The fourth and fifth holes are fairly related in that the fourth hole is a dogleg left up a hill, and the fifth hole is a dogleg right back down the hill. The key to scoring on these holes is accuracy and positioning off the tee, after which the players will be faced with an uphill approach shot to a blind green on the fourth hole, and a downhill, downwind approach shot to a green with two well-positioned bunkers on the left and right sides.
“The first few holes are the toughest,” Watson said. “There's more blind shots off the tees, you can't see the fairways, you can't see where you're hitting.”
The sixth hole is the last of the long stretch of challenging holes to start half of the field’s rounds on Thursday. The hole has a slight dogleg left and a well-positioned bunker at around 290 yards stretching into the middle of the fairway. Most players will be taking a 3-wood off the tee and opting for a mid to long iron approach shot into the green.
The hole was extended since the 1998 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, where the players would hit their drive over the fairway bunker and be left with a wedge into the green.
“I played it yesterday, trying to putt out and doing some things,” Watson said on Tuesday. “I was 2‑over through I think the first six. And I made some good par putts.”
“If you can get through there even, it's like you're shooting well under par, almost like you birdied all the holes,” Watson said.
Woods said it will come down to where USGA executive director Mike Davis puts the tee boxes during the rounds that will reveal how aggressive the players will be allowed to play this week.
“They can put 1 back, they can put 3 back,” he said. “They've shown us two different tee locations on 5. So they can mix/match a little bit and give us a break or just hammer us. So we'll see what happens.”
However, with the first six holes appearing as such a test for the best in the world, The Olympic Club is offering a chance to gain some strokes back with the 16th, 17th and 18th holes of the tournament, which is set to make for an exciting finish to the championship.
Woods knows that is where the championship will be won or lost.
“So you have three holes back‑to‑back, either you're chipping, you're wedging, so you're going to have to make some birdies there, absolutely,” he said.
“It gives you a chance to finish off a round. Generally we're just trying to hang on coming in and make a bunch of pars. But you're trying to make a bunch of pars throughout most of the day, and then all of a sudden you've got to change gears.”