Olympic Club greens improved for US Open

Olympic Club greens improved for US Open

Published Jun. 13, 2012 4:02 p.m. ET

It is an image the folks at Olympic Club would love to forget.

Payne Stewart, the Ozark hillbilly in the dapper plus-fours, had been leading the 1998 US Open since almost the opening shot. Then, on Friday afternoon, Stewart struck a birdie putt on the 18th green that came within a whisker of going in. But rather than stopping an inch or so from the hole, the ball began rolling back toward the front of the green. As it picked up steam, the groans from the gallery intensified.

This wasn't the first time goofy golf had broken out on the 18th green. Throughout the day, balls had trundled up to the back-left hole location, stopped briefly, then rolled back down the hill.

John Daly let the USGA have it, saying, "Thank God our tour doesn't do that. It was absolutely stupid. We work too hard out there, and people watching on TV have to think, ‘These guys are idiots.'"

Kirk Triplett didn't voice his frustrations, he showed them. After his ball reached the hole and started rolling back, Triplett (who was going to miss the cut anyway) incurred a two-shot penalty when he stopped the ball with his putter.

"I think that was a little frustration showing," then USGA executive director David Fay said.

Fay was frustrated as well. "The decision didn't turn out the way we hoped," he said. "You can't even get a Stimpmeter reading on that green."

Tom Meeks, the director of competitions at the time, said, "I just hope no one thinks that hole was picked intentionally to see those balls do that. I was embarrassed. I thought it might work because of some different preparation we made, but the bottom line was, it didn't."

Meeks' embarrassment didn't match that of the players. When Tom Lehman four-putted on Friday, he sought out Meeks and ripped into him.

"I was really upset, because we had talked about it during the week and I couldn't believe they put the pin there," Lehman said this year. "I was quite vocal in my criticism to Tom directly, to the point I needed to go back later and apologize."

Fourteen years later, no one but Meeks remembers Lehman's vitriol, Daly's rant, Fay's apology or Triplett's penalty. The only image they remember is Stewart, who, realizing what was happening after his ball started rolling back, walked to the front of the green and stood with his arms folded like a father waiting on a tardy child.

At that moment, the USGA and Olympic Club members had only one thought: Dear God, don't let him lose by one.

But that is exactly what happened two days later. Stewart maintained the lead throughout Saturday and into Sunday. Then, on the 12th hole of the final round, he drove the ball in a sand-filled divot, made bogey and lost by one to Lee Janzen.

He never brought up the putt on Friday. Stewart was gracious in defeat and forever supportive and complimentary of Janzen, who had also beaten him by one shot in the 1993 US Open at Baltasrol.

But the picture tells the story. The image of Stewart standing at the front of the green waiting on his ball to get back to him haunted the USGA for years, and led to another disaster a couple of years later.

Not wanting a repeat of the Olympic debacle, the competitions committee slowed down the 18th green at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. But making one green slower than the others was just as damaging. Stewart Cink three putted to finish one shot out of a playoff, and Retief Goosen three putted from four feet to tie Mark Brooks and force a Monday playoff.

Goosen went on to win, but the USGA was, once again, embarrassed by their obsession with pushing the limits of course setup.

This year, things will be different.  For starters, Olympic changed the 18th green twice after 1998, first taking out the severe slope and then adding some additional room on the back of the green.

But the biggest difference is current USGA executive director Mike Davis, who believes in fair setups for the national championship. If the greatest players in the world shoot under par as Rory McIlroy did last year, well, they are the best players in the world.

Davis is pleased with Olympic, which is 300 yards longer than it was in 1998. He is also pleased with the 18th.

"It's a short par-4 with a treacherous green," Davis said. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Indeed there isn't. Hopefully, the 18th will provide the kind of drama the US Open deserves, as long as nobody as the USGA gets any crazy ideas and puts a windmill or a dragon's mouth out there.