- Associated Press - Thursday, June 14, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The plan is for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson to pack a powerful punch in one group. Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood are supposed to counter in another.

Forget any agenda at the U.S. Open this week.

Despite the USGA’s attempt to inject some drama by grouping golf’s greatest together for the opening two rounds beginning Thursday, the championship never goes according to the script when it’s at The Olympic Club.

“Certain guys,” Woods said, “do really well in certain events.”

At Olympic Club, it hasn’t been the stars.

At least not in the end.

The 156-man field features the 14-time grand slam winner, a record-setting champion and more green jackets than anybody could ever fit in those wooden lockers in the clubhouse. There’s also a guy who drives a cart, a 14-year-old from China and a 42-year-old teaching pro from Ohio who got into this major on his 12th attempt with a putt that hung on the lip _ until it didn’t.

History suggests somewhere between those groups is the next U.S. Open champion.

The four players who finished second _ Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart _ in the previous U.S. Opens at Olympic Club won a combined 27 majors. The four winners _ Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen _ won a total of seven.

“It’s such a wonderful test of golf,” Mickelson said, “and has had so many great things happen over the years here.”

Golf is almost impossible to predict under the best of circumstances.

The U.S. Open is even harder.

And when the tournament comes to Olympic Club? Well, about the only thing more difficult to forecast is the famous fog that can swallow San Francisco and the unleveled Lake Course _ as it did during the final practice round Wednesday morning _ across the street from the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps the only safe bet is the course will be no pushover.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open records last year at rain-softened Congressional when he reached double figures under par before he even turned in his second-round scorecard. He finished at 268 to break the 72-hole mark by four shots, and his 16-under par was four better than Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Runner-up Jason Day of Australia shot 8 under _ good enough to win 46 of the previous 50 U.S. Opens and force a playoff in three others _ and 20 players finished under par. In the previous six national championships, a total of seven players finished under par.

Payback could be on the horizon this week.

In decades past, the usual reaction has been to overcompensate after so many red numbers ended up on the leaderboard. The best example might’ve come when Johnny Miller shot 63 on a rain-softened Oakmont course in the 1973 U.S. Open. The USGA got even a year later in the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” won by Hale Irwin at 7-over par.

USGA executive director Mike Davis has practically guaranteed to restore “golf’s toughest test” this year, although more from the expected dry weather in Northern California than anything else, creating firm and fast greens already hard enough to reach with the narrow, tree-lined fairways that twist and turn in every direction.

“We want this event to be a real challenge,” Davis said. “When you read about it, 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.”

Grinding out 72 holes at Olympic Club has never been easy.

Fleck did it in 1955, beating the great Hogan and overcoming a crowd clearly in The Hawk’s corner. Casper overcame Palmer’s seven-shot lead with nine holes to go in 1966, Simpson topped Watson to win his only major championship in 1987, and Janzen won at even-par 280 in 1998 over Stewart.

How the latest edition at this majestic course ends is uncertain.

At the very least, it starts with a bang.

Woods and Mickelson will play with Masters champion Watson for the first two rounds, teeing off on the par-4 ninth at 7:33 a.m. PDT. It will be the first time Woods and Mickelson have been paired in the championship since Torrey Pines in 2008, when the USGA grouped players off the world ranking.

That was also the last time Woods won a major.

Donald, McIlroy and Westwood highlight a group of the world’s three top-ranked players. Casey Martin and his cart are also in the field, so is 14-year-old Andy Zhang _ believed to be the youngest qualifier ever _ and Ohio club pro Dennis Miller, who’s still basking in the instant fame from the video that went viral of his 20-foot birdie putt to qualify out of a playoff.

Besides those nine, there’s still 147 other players in the field good enough to qualify for one of the grandest stages in all of golf. Find the one nobody is talking about.

He might just be making all the noise on Sunday.


Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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