There's no mystery about the USGA's goal in setting up the North course at Olympia Fields, outside Chicago, for this year's U.S. Open: It wants the course to be hard. "Imagine what people would say if the winning score at a U.S. Open were thirty under par," said Tom Meeks, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. "Nobody wants that. People understand that, for whatever reason, a hard course just seems to bring the best players to the top."
The PGA Tour, primarily an engine of entertainment, has figured out that week-in-and-week-out cascades of birdies attract the most paying fans, so it sets up its courses accordingly. The median winning score in the Tour's forty-four stroke-play events last year (excluding majors) was seventeen under par, and there were seventeen first-time PGA Tour winners. By comparison, the median winning score in the last thirty U.S. Opens was three under par, and in that time only Jerry Pate, in 1976, made the Open his first professional win. Moreover, in most recent cases when a lesser-known player has won the Open, he's turned out to have staying power. Retief Goosen, for example, surprised many by winning in 2001, but two years later he's ranked number seven in the world. As a means of identifying the best players under pressure, the USGA's hard-course strategy seems to work.
But hard is only half the equation. Fair is the other part. "We could set up a course so hard players wouldn't finish," said Tim Moraghan, the USGA's director of championship agronomy. "We could make the fairways ten feet wide, grow the rough waist high, lengthen the holes, put the pin in impossible places. Somebody would still win, but it would be more a comedy than a true test of golf."
The trick is striking the right balance—and everyone involved with the process will tell you that isn't easy. Meeks likened it to being a racecar driver: "In racing, you have to push as hard as you can, at the edge of danger, courting disaster, to have any kind of chance to win. In setting up an Open course, we constantly run the risk of stepping over the line and making it too hard, and every once in a while, absolutely, we cross that line. The eighteenth green at Olympic [in the 1998 Open] is a good example." In that case, the steeply canted green ran so fast that many players, most memorably eventual runner-up Payne Stewart, watched in dismay as good putts that appeared to be dying near the hole instead picked up speed and trickled yards downhill. Another example was the tenth hole at last year's Open at Bethpage Black. On that 492-yard par-four hole, several players weren't able to reach the fairway, about 260 yards away, even with their best drives.
Ideally, the USGA would like to see a winning score of even par or higher—not, according to Moraghan, out of some macho need to prove how tough it can be, but rather because in the USGA's philosophy par on a hole is an ideal, an excellent outcome, not a mark of failure. "By the same token, birdie is not something routine but something special, an extra reward for superb play," Moraghan said. "Birdie should be something like the two-point conversion in football. If you succeed, great, but it takes daring to achieve, and if you fail, there are consequences."
The process of setting up a course for the U.S. Open begins years in advance. The first step, obviously, is selecting the venue, which in the case of Olympia Fields occurred in the fall of 1997, a few months after the club successfully hosted the U.S. Senior Open and sixty-nine years after the club hosted its one and only other Open, at which an unheralded club pro named Johnny Farrell beat Bobby Jones in a play-off. (The club has also hosted two PGA Championships, won by Walter Hagen in 1925 and Jerry Barber in 1961.) But the selection did not come without conditions, specifically a long codicil to the contract stipulating all the changes that had to be made to the course. The main beef against Olympia Fields after the Senior Open was that the bunkers weren't penal enough, so item one on the USGA's to-do list was the "deepening and steepening" of all but sixteen of the course's eighty-seven bunkers (in the end, to create a consistent look, the club redid all eighty-seven). But that was just the beginning. The USGA also wanted at least three hundred yards added to the length, two greens completely rebuilt, the fairways substantially narrowed and recontoured, and—most controversially to the members—dozens of beautifully mature but strategically inconvenient trees chopped down. There was some room for negotiation on details, but eventually the club's leaders signed off and convinced the members to go along. At that point Olympia Fields, not the USGA, was responsible for the reconstruction—the course was closed from August 1999 through Memorial Day 2000—and for all the associated costs. The carrot at the end of the stick?Bragging rights, an improved layout and a hefty undisclosed fee from the USGA for the right to stage the Open there.
But the devil, or God, is in the details. What follows is a close look at how the process played out, from start to finish, on three representative holes at Olympia Fields.
The classic, old-style twelfth may be Olympia Fields' most beautiful hole. Players drive from an elevated tee into a valley fairway and then hit across a creek to a starkly elevated green. Like all golf-course architects working in the 1920s, Olympia Fields designer Willie Park Jr. was dependent on finding high spots with naturally good drainage for the tees and greens (these were in the days before greens were routinely underlaid with sand and gravel). To further enhance drainage he also tilted the greens, usually toward the fairway. When these greens rolled at speeds equal to five or six on the Stimpmeter, as they probably did back then, the pitch also made the putting more interesting, but with speeds in the eleven to twelve range, as they were at the 1997 Senior Open, the putting on especially steep greens like number twelve got a little bit too interesting. To prevent missed putts from rolling off of the front of the green, the USGA found that the only place it could fairly cut a hole was on a shelf at the rear. Not only did this limit its hole location options over a four-day tournament, but this also essentially took the two front bunkers, clearly intended by Park to be prime challenges of the hole, out of play.