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Can Tiger Woods crack the U.S. Open's 'graveyard of champions?'

By Colin Hancock, CNN
June 13, 2012 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
The U.S. Open will tee off at the Olympic Club for the fifth time on Thursday, with the San Francisco venue having developed a reputation for toppling some of golf's biggest stars. The U.S. Open will tee off at the Olympic Club for the fifth time on Thursday, with the San Francisco venue having developed a reputation for toppling some of golf's biggest stars.
HIDE CAPTION
'Graveyard of champions'
Hogan catches some Fleck
Casper the not-so-friendly host
Rory rides again
Strange goings on
Tiger's time again?
Mobile Martin
'Gentleman Jim'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • San Francisco's Olympic Club has earned a reputation as the graveyard of champions
  • Golf's last 14 majors have been won by 14 different players
  • Tiger Woods is bookies' favorite after recent Memorial win at Muirfield Village
  • Woods aiming to move to within three wins of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors

(CNN) -- It was at San Francisco's Olympic Club that "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, world heavyweight champion and to many the man who took boxing from a brawl to an art, trained and coached.

Twenty-two years after his death, the sports club hosted its first U.S. Open golf tournament in 1955. Ben Hogan lost in a playoff to an unknown golf pro from Iowa and the course was on its way to developing a reputation as the graveyard of champions. Now, after four U.S. Opens there, the first rule of Olympic Club favorites is ... there are no Olympic Club favorites.

That's more true than ever this time around. It remains to be seen whether we're in the post-Tiger Woods era or just an interregnum in his reign, but what's certainly the case is that these days a large number of players turn up at major championships with a genuine belief and chance of winning.

One simple fact supports them: the last 14 majors have been won by 14 different players.

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It was very different back at that first Olympic U.S. Open. Then, Ben Hogan was the man. Nine major championships under his belt and already the subject of a Hollywood movie, Hogan went to San Francisco in search of his fifth U.S. Open.

He seemed to have won it too: the TV commentator congratulated him on his victory and the broadcast went off air proclaiming Hogan as U.S. Open champion. Rather inconveniently, Jack Fleck, a pro from a municipal course in Iowa, birdied 15 and 18, forced Hogan into a playoff and then -- in one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time -- beat the great man by three shots.

Olympic's reputation was cemented 11 years later when that era's superstar, Arnold Palmer, held a seven-shot lead over Billy Casper as he began the final nine holes. Against all odds, Casper drew level with Arnie to take the tournament to another playoff, and again it was the underdog who emerged as U.S. Open champion.

Scott Simpson's victory over Tom Watson in 1987 and Lee Janzen's 1998 triumph over Payne Stewart in the next two U.S. Opens at Olympic merely confirmed the club as one where nothing could be taken for granted.

Of course, the bookmakers have their favorite -- and the way Tiger Woods birdied three of the last four holes to win the Memorial at Muirfield Village two weeks ago convinced many that his time has come again, that he can move to within three wins of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors.

The more cautious point out that his victory at Bay Hill earlier this season was followed by a disappointing performance in the Masters.

Can Tiger consistently hit fairways and stay away from the Lake course's many thousands of tall trees? Will his putting stand up to the severe test of Olympic's greens? Only four days of championship play will let us know. He tied for 18th here in 1998, but revealed he has had to start a new course book due to all the changes made since then.

On this month's Living Golf show, Nicklaus pointed out that while he had no idea how close he was to Bobby Jones' then record in the majors until a journalist pointed it out, Tiger has had Jack's record in front of him from his very first Masters. In fact, at the beginning of last season, our presenter Shane O'Donoghue asked Tiger if it was equaling Jack's record that drove him on.

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"I'm not looking to equal it," shot back Tiger with a steely non-smile.

Nicklaus, sitting alongside Rory McIlroy for a special joint interview, also suggested that the 23-year-old defending champion could be the one to break his record.

There will be more money on Rory to make it three in a row for Northern Ireland since golf's poster-boy took Jack's advice and practiced at Olympic last week, and his high ball flight should help with those approaches to tricky greens.

But the last man to win back-to-back U.S. Opens was Curtis Strange more than 20 years ago.

History is also against Dustin Johnson -- no-one has ever won a U.S. Open after winning the week before -- but then again he's a man rested (after injury), on form after his Memphis triumph and with the length to leave himself more lofted clubs to those slick, well-guarded putting surfaces. When world-renowned coach Butch Harmon tells you that Johnson is a major champion waiting to happen, maybe history should take a backseat.

Last year at Congressional the heavens opened and softened all the greens, allowing the bold to fire at pins in a most un-U.S. Open style. This week the forecast is for dry weather -- and with San Francisco's breeze quickening those small greens even further, the one near-certainty is that we won't be seeing a repeat of Rory's 16 under par. No-one is going to stroll round the Lake course accumulating birdies.

As the USGA's executive director Mike Davis puts it, balls will roll, and Olympic's numerous bunkers are likely to see a lot of traffic.

In short, no-one with any sense can have much confidence trying to pick a winner this week. The truth is that every one of the 156 players in the field has a chance of lifting that trophy. The history of Olympic, at least, tells them that.

But if you're looking to try to narrow things down a bit, it makes sense to look at patient, calm, in-form players with solid putting strokes and a mastery of the short game. So four names who cover at least most of those bases are: Johnson, 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Jason Dufner -- a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season --and world No. 1 Luke Donald.

They may finish as the top four, they may miss the cut. It's not often that picking the top-ranked player is high risk, but then this is the U.S. Open at Olympic.

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