Olympic course proving to be a graveyard for favourites

Not surprisingly, given the victory in the Memorial tournament, the bookmakers have installed Tiger Woods a 7/1 favourite for this week’s US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Next in the list, at 13/1, are Englishmen Lee Westwood, fresh from his impressive victory in Sweden on Saturday, and world number one Luke Donald whose tidy game seems ideally suited to the tight but relatively short Olympic lay-out. Having found a satisfactory level of performance in Memphis on Sunday only to spoil everything with a double bogey on the 18th, defending champion Rory McIlroy has gone out to 14/1 while Dustin Johnson, winner of that event, has hardened to 30/1.

Few could quibble with those odds. And yet, if previous championships at Olympic are to be taken as a reliable yardstick, those seeking value might well be advised to look elsewhere. Among a short list I have in mind are Zach Johnson (40/1), Charl Schwartzel and Jason Day (50/1), Aaron Baddeley (110/1) and Kevin Na (140/1).

Olympic produced one of the most unlikely champions in Jack Fleck in 1955 while few gave Billy Casper, 1966; Scott Simpson, 1987 and Lee Janzen, 1998, much of a chance before they won.

Robert Trent Jones did a major redesign job on the course for the 1955 championship with literally thousands of eucalyptus, cypress and pine trees lining the fairways, only the most accurate could hope to survive. Even though he was 43, Olympic seemed ideally suited to the legendary Ben Hogan.

As Bob Summers wrote in his US Open History: “There was only one way to play Olympic — hit the fairways and hit the greens. No one did this better than Hogan. Nobody had ever heard of Jack Fleck.”

Nevertheless, the pair tied after 72 holes and even more unbelievably, Fleck triumphed in the 18 hole play-off. They still talk about it as the greatest upset in the history of the US Open.

The great Arnold Palmer jumped into a seven-stroke lead over Billy Casper with nine to play in 1966. But once again the outsider drew level by the end of regulation play and went on to upset the odds once again in the play-off. Palmer’s collapse over the closing nine holes remains the biggest blot on an otherwise glittering career.

Once Tom Watson played himself into a winning position in 1987, it looked as if the title would be his but another relative unknown, Scott Simpson, emerged from the pack to pip him by a shot. Having captured the title at Baltusrol in 1993, Lee Janzen was a familiar name going into the most recent US Open at Olympic in 1998 but was a long way off favourite. And yet he had a shot to spare over Payne Stewart.

Olympic is no respecter of reputations and why many of the lesser lights have reason to believe this could be their week. Although Darren Clarke has opted out citing a groin injury, Ireland still have four players in the field, McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Peter Lawrie.

Few need reminding McDowell and McIlroy were crowned champion over each of the last two years. As a three-time major champion and after finishing a decent 13th in Memphis, Harrington also believes he can claim a fourth major title.

No praise is too high for Lawrie (300/1) who enjoyed a couple of outstanding weeks when fourth on his own in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth before coming through the qualifying process for the US Open. He also enjoyed a top ten finish in the Wales Open to confirm the 38-year-old Dubliner’s game has rarely been in better working order.

While Lawrie is unlikely to do a Fleck or Casper at Olympic, completing four rounds would make the effort worthwhile.

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