Wednesday, June 11

Fields: From unknown to Open

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- When the 103rd U.S. Open begins at 8 a.m. ET on Thursday at Olympia Fields Country Club, the 156 golfers in the field, like college students cramming for a final, will walk into golf's biggest test without a thorough knowledge of the course.

12th hole at Olympia Fields
The deepened bunkers will be one of Olympia Fields' only defenses if the wind doesn't pick up this week.

"When I go to St. Andrews the next time (for the British Open)," Davis Love III said, "I'll have seen it a bunch, and when I go to Muirfield, you keep hitting the same places. Here, they keep throwing these new ones at us that we haven't played before."

The United States Golf Association moves its pre-eminent championship to a different course every year. A few courses on the unofficial U.S. Open rotation -- Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2, the Lake course at Olympic -- make enough appearances on the PGA Tour that the world's best golfers have an idea of what awaits them. That's not the case with Olympia Fields, which did such a good job with its previous Open in 1928 that the USGA waited 75 years to return.

The relative mystery of Olympia Fields heightened when many players in the field could not get here Monday because of the rain-delayed final round of the FBR Capital Open. Given the circumstances, it would be easy to extrapolate that more players have an opportunity to win. Not so fast, said Love, the Tour's leading money-winner with nearly $3.8 million this year: "I think the best players adapt quicker."

"If you look at it, it's a classical golf course," Ernie Els, a two-time Open champion, said. "It's not playing all that long. ... The greens are very difficult. The greens are very undulated. They've got a lot of break on them. So, basically, it's exactly the same as any other U.S. Open."

There's one huge difference between this Open and the last; namely, the shorter hitters in the field aren't in an uproar. "I like this course a lot better than last year," Scott Verplank said. "I can reach the fairways on this one, if I can get the ball airborne." The setup last year at Bethpage Black, combined with the wet weather that softened the course, left the golfers with 250-yard carries to reach a couple of fairways.

Olympia Fields will present 7,190 relatively flat yards, bunkers that you could lose a car in, and greens that are not flat at all. Winning scores at U.S. Opens rarely venture too far from par. The score this year will depend on the winds in a city known for them, and on the firmness of the greens in a spring that has been as wet here as it has been on the East Coast.

"If we have rain, like we did today, " Phil Mickelson said Tuesday, "I think guys have a chance to get to 4, 5 or 6 under par for several rounds."

"If the wind blows," added Tiger Woods, "over par can very easily win this tournament."

Olympia Fields has hosted one major other than the '28 Open (not counting the 1997 Senior Open) -- the 1961 PGA, won by Jerry Barber. In none of the three majors will the same 18 holes be used. The club has 36 holes now. Shortly after opening in 1923, it had four courses, one of the reasons that its founders hoped it would become the mecca of sport in Chicago. Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary college football coach, was its first president.

The 1928 Open should be remembered for a few of its gifts to golf. One, according to "The PGA" -- a 1975 history of the organization by the late Chicago journalist Herb Graffis -- is the tournament program, which became such an unexpected hit that the club raised nearly as much revenue from the program as from ticket sales, even with the additional day demanded by a playoff. The USGA will make approximately $250,000 off the $10 souvenir program this year.

Another gift is the largely forgotten finish of the Open, which 27-year-old Johnny Farrell won by one stroke in a 36-hole playoff with the legendary amateur Bobby Jones. Farrell may be unknown now, but he won 22 tournaments in his career. His best victory came when he held off Jones in the playoff, in which both men birdied the last two holes.

Jones, who started his law practice in 1928, played only three tournaments that year. He went on to win the next two Opens before retiring from competitive golf at the end of 1930.

Farrell, who finished second in the British Open and PGA in 1929, never won another major. Jones may have started The Masters, but Farrell started something nearer and dearer to the modern golfer's wallet -- the clothing endorsement. Farrell, according to Graffis, was paid by Palm Beach clothing magnate Elmer Ward to wear his goods.

Five years later, the USGA returned to Chicago, but went to the North Shore Country Club. After World War II, the Open came to Medinah Country Club three times, the most recent in 1990.

Given the logistical (lots of room), political (no men-only clubs, such as Butler National, need apply) and architectural demands of the USGA on an Open host course, Olympia Fields may be the only Chicagoland club willing to take on the tournament. Medinah has cast its lot with the PGA, contracting to hold the sport's fourth major in 2006, and the Ryder Cup in 2012 as well.

As the golfers prepare for their own severe test, Olympia Fields is being tested as well. The future of U.S. Open golf in Chicago may depend upon it.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at He can be reached at

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