Golfers forever seek an edge, any edge, so it’s not surprising they welcome the chance to talk to the superintendent of the course they are about to play. That’s the case even for the best players in the world. The super, previously known as head groundskeeper, sets up the course, in some cases to specifications ordered, and knows better than anyone the nuances of how it should play.
Pat Finlen, superintendent at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, the site of the U.S. Open that starts today, has come a long way since as a sophomore at Kansas University he was cutting grass and helping to construct the third of four nine-hole sides that made up Alvamar Country Club.
Finlen, who will add president of the Lawrence-based Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in February, shared an interesting comment about The Olympic he was told by Tiger Woods when the resurgent golf superstar was in San Francisco two weeks ago to play a practice round.
“Tiger hadn’t played it since 1998, and he thought it was fantastic,” Finlen said by phone from San Francisco last week. “He told me he thought it was going to be the toughest first six holes of any tournament he has played in, ever.”
The par-70 course is set up to play 7,170 yards, 670 of those yards coming on No. 16. It factors in why Finlen said he thinks the final three holes, rife with high risk-reward shots and decisions for the golfers, could determine the winner.
Finlen’s plan was to go an entire week without cutting rough that already was on the thick side, which puts a premium, as in all U.S. Open tournaments, on driving accuracy. He said he has had the help of not just his staff, but from 100 volunteers out of 16 different countries.
Per usual, the Open has some interesting three-man groupings the first two days of the tournament. The sexiest — allow me to start over, given the scandal that led to Tiger’s stretch of atypical play — the most compelling three-man grouping of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson tees off No. 9 at 9:33 a.m. (Central time).
Woods is coming off his second PGA Tour victory of the season (The Memorial) after going winless in 2010 and 2011. Woods followed his first victory of 2012, in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, by finishing 40th at The Masters.
Tiger seeks his 15th major title and first since winning the U.S. Open for the third time, at Torrey Pines on a wounded knee. Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, seeks his first title, and Watson, the Masters champion, would be halfway to a Grand Slam with a victory.
The British Isles threesome that tees off No. 1 at 3:29 p.m. ranks as the next most interesting group to track. It features Luke Donald and Lee Westwood — a pair of Englishmen known as the two best current golfers never to win a major — and defending U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who tries to become the first Open champion to defend his title successfully since Curtis Strange in 1989. Donald is No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, McIlroy No. 2 and Westwood No. 3.
Teeing off No. 1 in the group ahead of that threesome are long-ball mashers Alvaro Quiros of Spain, Gary Woodland from Topeka and Kansas University and Australian John Senden, who ranks 24th on tour in driving accuracy. Woodland and Quiros also were in the same threesome for the past two Masters.
Woodland finished 17th on the PGA Tour money list in 2011 with $3,448,591 in earnings, finished in the top 30 in all four majors and then helped the United States win its first World Cup in 11 years when he teamed with Matt Kuchar in China.
This season hasn’t gone as well for Woodland, who changed management groups, which led to swing coach Randy Smith, father of Woodland’s former manager, Blake Smith, dropping Woodland after a six-year relationship. Woodland then hired Butch Harmon and stated their goal was to have a new swing locked in in time for the Masters. Woodland appeared on schedule, playing well at the Masters until a wrist injury flared up during his third round and forced him to withdraw. He missed four weeks recovering from the injury and has played in four tour events since, making the cut twice. Woodland ranks 119th with $364,364 on this year’s money list.