Retaliation time at U.S. Open?

SAN FRANCISCO -- This is a long way from the nation's capital, a year removed from a U.S. Open that signaled Rory McIlroy's emergence as a star on a stage that he all but destroyed.

That manhandling of Congressional Country Club by McIlroy and the overall dismantling of a storied venue is an interesting subplot as the 112th U.S. Open gets under way at the Olympic Club.

Gone are the heat and humidity and glimpses of the White House, replaced by June gloom and the Golden Gate Bridge. Also left behind, almost assuredly, is the scoring onslaught that made last year's U.S. Open look more like a regular tour event than what is often referred to as golf's toughest test.

And that is what should have the 156 players in the Open field a bit nervous as they traverse the 7,170-yard, par-70 Olympic Club course that hosts the tournament for the fifth time.

Previous Opens here won by Jack Fleck (1955), Billy Casper (1966), Scott Simpson (1987) and Lee Janzen (1998) should be clue enough that the venue is as vaunted as they come, a stern test that will leave the competitors shivering from more than the morning chill.

Then there is last year and its impact on this year -- perceived or otherwise.

Nobody will come right out and say so, but you get the distinct feeling that the United States Golf Association wants no repeat of the low scoring seen a year ago in Washington, D.C., where 20 players broke par and McIlroy set a tournament record at 16 under -- and won by 8 shots.

"Last year I don't know what the hell was going on,'' said two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, who won the 1997 Open at Congressional. "I think it's going to be different this year. It's going to be back to shooting par or something. Even as the members play [Olympic], I think it'll be hard to shoot par or better.''

The lowest anyone has been in relation to par in the four previous Opens at Olympic was Simpson in 1987, when he shot 277, 3 under par, to edge Tom Watson by a stroke. Janzen won at even-par 280 in 1998.

If history is a guide, the USGA has gone drastically the other way when a U.S. Open course has been torched.

The best example is 1974, when the U.S. Open became known as the "Massacre at Winged Foot.'' A year after Johnny Miller became the first player to shoot 63 in major championship history during the final round at Oakmont, Winged Foot was brutal. Hale Irwin won at 287, 7 over par -- and no winning score has been higher since.

"There was no doubt that that 63 really riled up the USGA,'' said Miller, now an analyst for NBC. "They might fib about it, but there's never been rough like that before or since or before, let's say, 1970. The rough was ridiculous.''

Jim Furyk won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields with a record-tying score of 272; the next year the Open went to Shinnecock, where only Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson finished under par and the USGA came under fire for the difficult course setup.

Since then, there have been some brutally hard Opens, such as 5-over-par winning totals at Winged Foot in 2006 and Oakmont in 2007. Two years ago, Graeme McDowell won at even par at Pebble Beach.

So you can see where 16 under par kind of stands out.

Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA and the man who sets up U.S. Open venues, is well aware of the perception that he'll turn into a mad scientist and rub his hands in glee as he attempts to torture the best in the world.

"We want this event to be a real challenge,'' Davis said. "That mindset, when you read about it, goes back even into the 1800s when this event was played. So I think that one of the things we want to set this event apart is really challenging the players in all respects.

"It wasn't as if last year didn't challenge them, but the one thing they didn't have last year that really was a part of the championship is at least a day or two of firm conditions. And when you give the world's best players an opportunity to know as soon as their ball lands it's going to stop, they can be more aggressive off the tee. They can certainly be more aggressive hitting into the greens and going for hole locations that may be hidden, and strategically some of the rolls to the property, really, you're not bringing those to life.''

Given the lack of rain and moisture, that won't be an issue at Olympic. If anything, Davis said, he's had to guard against too little water on the course. The grounds staff watered the course on Tuesday.

"Congressional is a length golf course,'' said 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink. "Long isn't enough for these players. Olympic has a lot more than length. It's going to be firm. It's going to be narrow. It's going to be gnarly. There's going to be mistakes all over the place. Bogeys and doubles made on easy holes.

"That's what you really didn't see much of at Congressional. It didn't really get out of control because the greens weren't really healthy enough to get them firm.''

That is not a problem here. Even with the fog and mist, this is a firm, fast course with a frightening six-hole opening stretch, several shaved areas around greens, a 670-yard par-5 and lightning-quick putting surfaces.

"Do I like it? I'll tell you in a few days,'' said Masters champion Bubba Watson. "I don't like it. There's an 80 lurking. After four days of golf, if there's not an 80, then I like it all right. ... There's something on every hole that can get you. It makes it very difficult. That's a nice PC way of saying it.''

But that is not to suggest -- or is it? -- that the USGA is going out of its way to make the golf course more difficult. Some will always believe that; others simply feel that is the makeup of Olympic.

"When I was at the European Tour player awards, Mike Davis was there and so was Rory, and we started chatting about the golf course,'' McDowell said. "I sort of jokingly suggested we might be in for a tough test this year. He kind of gave it a wry smile and shook off the question as a true politician might do. Mike is an intelligent guy, but yeah, I think it's going to be tough.''

Will it be a case of exacting revenge, or simply an exacting, taxing U.S. Open test?

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.