Golf has always been the breeding ground of great rivalries. The Big Three: Hogan, Nelson and Snead. Then Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. Next, a long decade of Nicklaus vs. Watson. And today Tiger against Everyone!
But the greatest rivalry in golf is actually not one player against another. The greatest rivalry pits players against championship courses. And the one to beat, decade after decade, is the Lake Course of The Olympic Club in San Francisco, home of this week’s 2012 U.S. Open.
Ben Hogan, who won three majors in one year, could not defeat this course in 1955. Arnold Palmer, who won everywhere and on every golf course, had a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go in the final round in 1966 and the Lake Course beat him. Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens, two Masters and one U.S. Open, failed to win there in 1987. And the late, great Payne Stewart, winner of two U.S. Opens and a PGA championship, took a one-stroke lead into Sunday afternoon back in 1998, faded to a 74 in the final round and ended up finishing third.
Tiger Woods, a golf legend fighting to return to greatness on the greens after injuries and disgrace, won two weeks ago. Now he goes up against the Lake Course and will he, like so many others great players, fail?
My guess is that he won’t overcome Lake Course. I’m betting on the likes of Luke Donald or Lee Westwood, though Westwood had failed to make the big putts in the big tournaments. Luke Donald is rated #1 on the tour today but has never won a major.
Look for Matt Kuchar who joked yesterday about the Lake Course, saying that just “the first 18 holes are extremely difficult.”
Then, of course, there is 14-year old Andy Zhang from China (and Florida) the youngest player ever in the event and only one of eight amateurs in the Open.
The key pairing today is teeing off the back side at 10:33 this morning. That’s Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Bubba Watson (who won the first major this year, the Masters).
Great golfers like Tiger, Phil and Bubba have only 14 clubs. Great courses have fast greens, deep roughs, tight fairways, sand and water traps. There’s trouble everywhere. Watch out for the Lake Course. It lays in wait.