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Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Updated: June 14, 8:59 AM ET
Olympic will be survival of the fittest

By Ian O'Connor
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- The USGA elders made a fuss over Jack Nicklaus on Wednesday, marking the 50th anniversary of his first U.S. Open title by dedicating its gold medal in his name, and yet nothing they could do or say in their ceremony altered this cold, hard truth:

Golf conquered Nicklaus, not the other way around. The Golden Bear won 18 Grand Slam tournaments and yet finished second in majors 19 times. So yes, even when it came to the greatest champion of all, golf had the last laugh.

Golf always gets the last laugh.

That's why millions of recreational players, tormented by a game that breaks even the sturdiest of men and women, are all fired up to watch Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson -- the headline act at the Olympic Club -- feel their average, everyday pain.

The Open embraces a no-pain, no-gain approach like no other event. As much as your typical muni hacker, your common Joe Six-putt, loves watching the biggest stars reduce the PGA Tour's most forbidding tracks to miniature golf courses, sans the windmill and clown's mouth, he craves something different from the Open. He wants to see Tiger and the rest suffer just like he does.

This isn't about the club pros making a dream appearance in a major, nor is it about Andy Zhang, bless his 14-year-old heart. Nobody wants to see the journeymen and an eighth-grade graduate get schooled by a course that once left the likes of Arnold Palmer a quivering back-nine wreck.

This is about the titans of the tour, the players who so often make an impossibly difficult game look easy. The Open is their answer to the Hunger Games. More often than not, a golfer doesn't win the Open. He survives it.

"This golf course is going to be so tough," Watson said, "it doesn't matter if you're ready. It can make you look silly if it wants to."

So can the USGA, which has a history of mistaking its courses for penal colonies. Johnny Miller shoots his magical, mystery 63 at Oakmont to win the 1973 Open? No sweat. The USGA takes it out on the field at Winged Foot the following year, leaving Miller at 22-over, the winner Hale Irwin at 7-over, and Nicklaus at 14-over.

Chances are, Rory McIlroy didn't do his Olympic contemporaries any favors by going 16-under last year at Congressional. Asked Wednesday if USGA vengeance is more myth or reality, executive director Mike Davis called the question "very fair" before saying, "We want this event to be a real challenge."

No kidding. When discussing Olympic, Watson, the reigning Masters champ, sounded like someone who had traded his green jacket for a straitjacket. He went on about two holes, 13 and 14, "that we don't even know how to play," and spoke grimly of the dangers lurking around every dogleg bend.

"I don't want to come out here and shoot 80," Watson said. "As of right now, I don't like [the course]. There's an 80 lurking."

And what 22-handicapper wouldn't love to see that? The mad-bombing Bubba, the guy who pulled off that ridiculous playoff shot from the Augusta National trees, succumbing to the same demons that haunt golfers who drive the ball half as far as he does.

The Open makes it all possible, even if sometimes those USGA elders go too far. The tournament got away from them in 2004, when it would've been easier stopping an approach shot on a sunbaked autobahn than landing one on Shinnecock's greens in the final round. Twenty-eight players failed to break 80, including Billy Mayfair, a five-time tour winner, who shot 89 and finished 30-over.

Even the bloodlusting fans agreed Shinnecock had devolved that day into an unfair test of golf. Yet when those fans complained about it, they often did so with smiles on their faces.

Olympic will not be Shinnecock revisited, but it will take its pound of flesh from the field. The fairways are fast and narrow, the doglegs are severe, the greens are small and the fog is thick. Olympic boasts the longest hole in Open history (the 670-yard 16th) and the toughest six-hole start in creation, including a 520-yard par-4 out of the gate.

An approach that misses long to the right side of the 17th green could run all the way to Anaheim. And if you miss the 13th green to the left, Mickelson said, "It's off to Hartford. You may as well pack your bags, and we'll see you next week because that ball is going to go down the creek, in the rough, under the trees, and you still may be there on Monday."

The Open is so trying, so treacherous, that Woods said there's almost no room for exchanging small talk with your playing partners. Of course, Woods wouldn't want to chat with Mickelson at a corporate outing, never mind a major, and he hasn't forgotten Watson's stinging critique of his swing, the one that inspired Tiger's coach, Sean Foley, to return heavy fire on Bubba.

But starting Thursday, Woods, Mickelson and Watson will share a common goal: survival. It's a goal shared every week by C-flighters at your local club, and by die-hards who sleep in their cars to get morning tee times at Bethpage and beyond.

The Open is their major, their chance to watch the greats battle the game just like they do -- as bare-knuckled underdogs. If Joe Six-putt ultimately wants to see one player prevail over the course and the elements, this much is certain:

He wants to see some blood first.