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The lowest winning score at Olympic in the U.S. Open is 3-under 277. The highest is 7-over 287.

The course essentially was built on the side of a giant sand dune that leads toward Lake Merced, meaning most fairways are slanted. It’s an uphill walk just crossing the 17th fairway. The fourth hole slopes severely to the right, but the hole is a dogleg to the left to an elevated green.

“This sort of sets itself apart because of the severity of the fairways, and the fact that you have to shape it into them,” Lee Westwood said. “I can’t think of any other course that really compares to it. Most places you try and get the fairways pretty flat when they’re doing the design. But here, they seem to prefer the ball to land on one side of the fairway and run to the other.”

The U.S. Open gets under way Thursday, and it won’t take long for some buzz to fill the cool, heavy air along the Pacific.

Woods and Phil Mickelson, the biggest (and most one-sided) rivalry of their generation, are playing with Watson in the fourth group of the day, starting on the par-4 ninth hole. The afternoon has McIlroy and two Englishman desperate to win their first major _ Westwood and Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world.

Some are curious to see whether Olympic is the stern test it appears to be. The technology boom was just getting under way the last time this major came to Olympic in 1998. There was a big debate over the size of drivers and the trampoline effect. Most players were using a wound golf ball. There were no special screwdrivers that allowed players to adjust their drivers with a turn and a click.

One change to the course was par. It’s still at 70, but the opening hole (520 yards) is now a par 4, and the 17th hole (522 yards) is a par 5. That makes the opening six holes a tough way to start the U.S. Open.

This is one area, though, where Woods and Mickelson don’t agree.

“I think that the first six, if you play them for four straight days even par, you’re going to be picking up just a boat load of shots,” Woods said. “They’re just difficult.”

Mickelson also figured that even par or even 1-over par during that stretch was acceptable, but that’s as far as he went.

“I think it’s overrated a little bit in difficulty,” he said. “It’s certainly challenging. But the way it’s set up gives you an opportunity to play them.”

Matteo Manassero, the 19-year-old Italian, said it was a classic case of a golf course not needing water or other hazards to make it difficult. Except for a wild hook on the 13th, there are no water hazards. And there is only one fairway bunker on the entire course, on the sixth hole.

“First time I’ve played a golf course with one bunker in the fairway,” he said. Then smiling as he looked ahead to the British Open next month at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, he added, “And the next major will have probably 300 bunkers.”

The tournament ultimately will be decided on the closing holes, which are different for another reason. Starting with the uphill 14th, players could wind up playing a short iron (usually no more than wedge) into the green on the last five holes. It’s not a case of hanging for par. It’s trying to make birdies.

“Well, it gives you a chance to finish off a round,” Woods said. “Generally, we’re just trying to hang on coming in and make a bunch of pars. But you’re trying to make a bunch of pars throughout most of the day, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to change gears.”

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