SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When the U.S. Open golf tournament tees off in June at the Olympic Club, we all know the preferred final day pairing. That would be defending champion Rory McIlroy walking down the 18th fairway alongside Tiger Woods, trophy on the line.
The problem: If there is one golf course and one major championship where that will never happen, it's going to be this summer at the Olympic's Lake Course in the U.S. Open.
And it's not just because of what happened at the Masters a few weeks ago, when people expected a McIlroy-Woods duel that didn't materialize.
Because in truth, that duel did materialize. Sort of.
"It was a two-horse race for 40th place," McIlroy joked Monday in a conference call during the U.S. Open media day at Olympic. "I think we both tied for 40th. So it wasn't our best week."
McIlroy was correct on both counts. He and Woods did tie for 40th at Augusta. And it was not their best week. But there's no reason to believe the third weekend of June in San Francisco will be any different. The current state of their games works against it. Golf history screams it. Until history is hoarse.
Four previous U.S. Opens have been played at Olympic. All four have yielded less renowned champions -- Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen. In every case, they vanquished a big name of their particular era -- Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Payne Stewart -- over the final holes. Casper actually beat Palmer in a playoff.
"In some ways," USGA executive director Mike Davis said, "you remember more about what great legend didn't win an Open here versus who did win."
It's unclear why the Olympic Club repeats the same scenario over and over. But the bending, undulating fairways and cutesy boutique-sized greens might have something to do with it. They tend to level the field so that power and glory is neutralized.
For example, Woods was a 22-year-old hotshot and ranked No. 1 in the summer of 1998, the last time the Open visited Olympic. He struggled and finished in a tie for 18th place, 10 shots behind Janzen. Does anyone believe Woods can do better at age 36 when he can't seem to consistently control where his driver is going -- on a course that puts a premium on accurate driving and shot-shaping?
McIlroy, of course, is the current 23-year-old hotshot on tour but was strangely off key at Augusta. He's never played Olympic and said he has no plans to do so until mid-June. But his expectations are that the playing conditions will quasi-duplicate the 2010 U.S. Open environment at Pebble Beach
Olympic is indeed the urban second cousin of Pebble Beach, if you can use the word "urban" to describe the handsomely wooded rolling landscape of southwest San Francisco. At Pebble, the ocean is right out the front window. At Olympic, it's across the street. But as long as the fog stays minimal, the ocean breezes and lack of summer rain do tend to crispy up the fairways.
"I'm expecting this year to be maybe a little similar to Pebble in terms of that it will be fast and running," McIlroy said. "It won't necessarily be a long ball hitter that will play well there. You just really need to control your ball."
And how, you may wonder, did McIlroy perform in the 2010 Open at Pebble Beach under those same conditions? He was 10 over par the first two days and missed the cut.
"At that point a couple of years ago, I wasn't playing so well," McIlroy explained. "So it wasn't just conditions that really got the better of me that week. It was just more that I wasn't in control of my golf ball."
Yet even if he regains control of where his ball is going, do not count on McIlroy winning the Open. More history: There has not been a repeat U.S. Open champion since Curtis Strange in 1989. So what's the best way to choose the 2012 champion? Maybe by throwing darts. Who is the 2012 version of Fleck or Simpson? There's your man.
This quest for an anonymous champion doesn't mean people will stay away from the event. To the contrary. Woods' struggles of the past four years -- his last major title was at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines -- have apparently done nothing but increase the demand for tickets to America's national golf championship. Officials said Monday that 97 percent of the tickets are sold for this year's tournament.
A major concern, in fact, is that the Open may be growing too big and teeming for its knickers. The USGA is selling 5,000 more tickets per day at Olympic this time compared to 1998. That will bring the daily paid attendance to 33,500 -- and total humans on the site (including volunteers, course employees and workers in the 39 corporate tents) to well over 40,000.
Two years ago at Pebble Beach when a similar number of tickets were sold daily, elbow room was scarce. One USGA official now admits it was probably too many people for the course to handle. But the thinking is that Olympic will accommodate the crowds better. Here's why: Olympic has no ocean-edge holes that confine spectator access to one side of fairways. And compared to the 1998 Open setup, the USGA is constructing 14,000 new grandstand seats. Olympic members also authorized the removal of substantial trees -- including dozens that came out during a major redo of the eighth hole, a par 3 that has been rebuilt so that a few thousand people can fill up the side of a hill overlooking the green.
"It's going to be great for the spectators," said Davis, noting that the USGA could probably have sold 5,000 more tickets per day if it was concerned only about revenue. "We do our best to think through the right number for attendance in terms of making it a good viewing experience."
The best viewing experience, of course, would be McIlroy and Woods -- or Phil Mickelson or Bubba Watson or any familiar face -- strolling onto the 18th green Sunday and rolling in a champion's putt. Don't bet a corporate tent on it.