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This Course Is an Open Secret

Much is unknown about Olympia Fields, including how it will stand up to the world's best golfers.

June 11, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — We have pretty much figured out the who, when and where of this 103rd U.S. Open, beginning Thursday at Olympia Fields Country Club, but are not so clear on the how and the why.

This may prove to be the biggest mystery at a major since Jean Van de Velde pulled a driver out of his bag.

The world's top golfers have convened here for our beloved national golf championship and you couldn't blame some of them if they dropped off their bags at Medinah, a far more majestic U.S. Open setting, by mistake.

Medinah is outside Chicago too, and has hosted three U.S. Opens since Olympia Fields hosted its last, and you don't need a train schedule to get to Medinah.

It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with playing a U.S. Open at venerable Olympia Fields. You like to move these things around. Players have been respectful and generally deferential, the way one might be to his or her elderly aunt.

"A wonderful test," Phil Mickelson said Tuesday.

Olympia Fields appears to be a perfectly fine course. It is very green and boasts the requisite 7,000 yards and par of 70, yet if it is buzz you're looking for, your best bet may be the beer tent.

Olympia Fields lacks pizazz, or even quirkiness. There is some question as to whether it will even pack a punch.

Playing last year's Open at a public course, Bethpage Black, also raised a few eyebrows at first.

But Bethpage had a sentimental bent in that it was a payback to all the public hackers out there and, at 7,214 yards, proved so severe a test Nick Price had trouble reaching some fairways off the tee.

Tiger Woods, the winner at three under, was the only player who finished under par.

Bethpage also had hecklers -- locals mostly, from Long Island. It was charming in a crude, beer-belch way.

But what is Olympia Fields if not a mystery?

Most of the players had never played here until very recently (Woods sneaked in a round with Michael Jordan on May 29).

Jeff Sluman is said to own a house seven miles from the course but would need directions to get here.

Mike Weir, the reigning Masters champion, played a round last week, although you could hardly call it a fine-tuning.

"The maintenance crew and superintendent were doing a lot of things to the greens, and that slowed them down so I didn't get a feel around the greens," Weir said.

One writer dubbed this anonymous Open "The Jamie Farr Smucker's Jelly Joliet Illinois U.S. Open at Cluster Putt," which is cruel without giving Olympia Fields chance for rebuttal.

After all, not every U.S. Open can be played at Pebble Beach.

"You can't say that anything stacks up to Pebble Beach," Woods said of the course on which he scored his runaway win at the 2000 U.S. Open.

"It's one of the most beautiful places in all of golf. And we do play some very historic venues."

Olympia Fields is historic too, just rarely sampled by golf connoisseurs.

It was built in 1923, hosted the 1928 U.S. Open but lacks modern historical context.

Johnny Farrell holding off the legendary Bobby Jones to win the 1928 Open at Olympia Fields probably made a terrific, "News of the World" sports clip at local movie houses, but we prefer our memories now on DVD and in color.

We need an outlet to attach moments and memories to our U.S. Opens:

Arnold Palmer driving the first green at Cherry Hills in 1960; Tom Watson's chip shot on No. 17 at Pebble Beach in 1982; Jack Nicklaus' one-iron at Baltusrol in 1967.

Olympia Fields hasn't hosted a professional major since the 1997 Senior Open, won, some would say appropriately, by Graham Marsh over John Bland.

If it's bland you want, maybe this is the perfect setup.

Tricky greens, danger at every turn, a course that requires flair and a deft touch? Like the European courses?

"That's the last thing you want in a U.S. Open," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said. "You want to be sort of like a machine, just hit it down the fairway, hit it on the green."

Green, but not heard?

"You want to be the most boring golfer around this week," Harrington laughed.

And how would Harrington compare Olympia Fields to others he's played?

"I can't do that because I've never been on the golf course," he said.

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