Rory McIlroy reacts on the 18th green after struggling through the first… (Andrew Redington / Getty…)
SAN FRANCISCO — The Olympic Club, upon which they are playing this year's U.S. Open, went one-on-three Thursday afternoon. At first look, it seemed like an unfair matchup.
On one side was the golf course, a typical U.S. Open nightmare. On a scale of 1 to 10, its difficulty was a 12. That's just what its evil-doers, the U.S. Golf Assn., delight in.
On the other side were the three top players in the game. Ranked Nos. 1 through 3 in the World Golf Rankings, in order, were Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood. They played together, so measuring this Terrific Threesome against the Ogre On The Ocean seemed a nice exercise.
Narrowing it down to the much-discussed opening holes, the Sadistic Six, seemed even better. So we walked and watched the best take on the beast.
The jewels of European golf took the first tee around 1:30. The weather was alternating between warm and windbreaker. Flags flapped and clouds hurried along overhead. Just before Luke, Lee and Rory teed it up, the massive crowd that had followed Tiger Woods during his stirring one-under 69 in the morning cleared the walkway on the first fairway.
Aside from Woods looking like a player formerly known as Tiger, the morning buzz was about the four-under 66 by a Michael Thompson who had never played for, or broadcast about, the Lakers. And young Beau Hossler, the Orange County prep stars in his second U.S. Open at age 17, was on the leaderboard at even par — or, for perspective, six shots better than Phil Mickelson.
So, the stage was set for the afternoon and its marquee threesome. They introduced McIlroy as last year's U.S. Open champion, and they were off.
No. 1 — A par four that played 509 yards, brought a warning on the morning advisory sheet that winds would push approach shots to the right. All three end up down the hill to the right of the green in a collection area and Westwood's first chip rolls all the way back down. He double-bogeys, McIlroy and Donald bogey. Using par as a scorecard, Olympic leads, 4-0.
No. 2 — Another par four, this time a meager 426 yards. McIlroy and Westwood manage pars, Donald almost chips in out of trap and then slides his comeback putt past for a bogey. Olympic leads, 5-0.
No. 3 — A par three, but not easier. It plays 228 yards and they put the pin on the upper right side, meaning shots that go for the pin probably will be blown off into the rough or trap. Westwood's second shot goes 10 feet past the pin and he gets a bogey. Olympic 6, Terrific Threesome 0.
No. 4 — Back to the par fours, this one 434 yards, with the usual 30-yard-wide fairway. No. 4 is even a little extra special because it is a dogleg left, but the landing area slants to the right. A golf club is less important here than a slide-rule. All three make pars, but the moral victory leaves Olympic still leading, 6-0.
No. 5 — This par four is 501 yards and all three golfers are short on their second shots. Donald and McIlroy miss putts for pars and Olympic has now run up the score to 8-0. Does the USGA have a mercy rule?
No. 6 — This is the last of the Sadistic Six. Fans chat about it as they watch. One tells his buddy that "these holes are brutal." A woman sits in a folding chair alongside the green and says, "I feel so sorry for these players." McIlroy misses the group's first real birdie chance when his 20-footer stops on the lip. Donald and Westwood each hit drives into a trap, each can only advance out of it about 60 yards and each make bogey.
The slapdown is over. Olympic has kept its focus right to the end. Winning is one thing. Double figures is another. Olympic 10, World's Top Three 0. The Three Musketeers have been turned into the Three Stooges.
And they have 12 holes to go.
This course isn't a good walked spoiled. It's a terrible walk that serves misery for dessert. Think of it as a hilly hell. It doesn't have ups and downs. Just ups. It was made for bighorn sheep, not golf.
Olympic presents an amazing consistency. Each hole is too long and each is unreachable, no matter what club you use. If there is a cup on the green, your ball won't roll that way, no matter from where you hit it The wind always blows, but it is only at your back when you don't want it to be.
Those were the conditions Thursday, when the weather was good.
The golfers' prevailing strategy is to emerge from the first six holes with treatable wounds and heal up a bit on the closing 12. Or, as 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said, "You play the first six holes here and you feel like you've played 10."
The strategy didn't work for our formerly terrific trio. They still needed lots of gauze when it was over. Westwood made a nice run on the back nine and finished three over. McIlroy never figured it out and was seven over. Same for the No. 1 player in the world, Donald, who signed a card that said nine over par. Final score: Olympic 19, Terrible Triumvirate 0.
Donald summed it up best.
"The top three guys in the world, and we make three birdies among us," he said.
They play together again Friday. Olympic can't wait.