When Nick Watney begins competition for golf’s national championship, the U.S. Open, beginning Thursday, the Davis High graduate will do it just 85 miles from the course where he learned to love the game.
That’s because the 2012 edition of The Open will be contested at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, a straight shot down I-80 from Davis Muni.
Everything he learned growing up playing at the local course has led Watney to an event that the golfing world considers the toughest test of all.
The Olympic Club’s opening six holes are being talked about as the hardest opening stretch in major championship history.
“I think it’s very difficult,” Watney told The Enterprise on Tuesday after a practice round with Elk Grove’s Spencer Levin. “It’s right there in front of you. There’s nothing tricky, but at the same time bad shots are very costly.”
U.S. Open courses traditionally are set up to penalize even marginal shots. This week at Olympic should be no different. If a player doesn’t find the correct portion of a green, it will be hard to recover.
“You can’t really scramble around here,” Watney said. “I think it’s a very fair test.”
Watney is ranked 26th on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation (finding the green on your approach shot). So in order to avoid scrambling, he’s going to have to continue to find the greens with his iron play.
It’s been a relatively quiet season thus far for the 31-year-old former Blue Devil. He has only two top-10 finishes. However, his swing coach Butch Harmon has been working very closely with Watney to get his game ready for this major championship.
“Nick has been in a little bit of a funk lately,” Harmon said on Tuesday. “We did a lot of work last week to get not only his golf game back in shape, but to get his confidence level better.”
Both Harmon and Watney agree that, with the wind being an element in San Francisco, and with the way the course is set up, any score under par may be enough to win this national open.
“This kind of course is the old-style U.S. Open course,” Harmon said. “It’s hard. Pars are wonderful here.”
The Olympic Club is a course that features holes with what the golfing world calls reverse camber — a hole that doglegs to the right but with a fairway sloping to the left. With difficult fairway bunkers and thick U.S. Open rough ready to swallow mediocre and poor shots, Watney and the contenders this week will have their hands full off the tees.
Harmon suggests almost a defensive approach.
“The big premium is putting the ball in the fairway,” said the former coach for Tiger Woods. “You’re not going to hit many drivers, but you have to have a game plan on every hole. He feels good about what he’s doing and that’s the important part.”
Jack Nicklaus was at Olympic on Wednesday and told The Enterprise the importance of patience at a U.S. Open, especially on a course like this.
“It’s the ultimate thing you need to have (to win),” Nicklaus said.
Despite The Olympic Club’s proximity to Dixon, where Watney grew up, he has played Olympic only three times before this week. One of those times came right after he graduated from DHS in 1999.
“I haven’t played here as much as everybody would assume, living fairly close, but I’m still really glad it’s here,” Watney said.
For Watney, the best thing about The Open coming to The Olympic Club is that his family and close friends will be there for support.
“I’m really excited for my friends and family to come out,” Watney said. “I know some guys from Davis Muni will be out here.”
Another added bonus is a chance to see his beloved San Francisco Giants.
On Tuesday, Harmon had plans to attend the Giants game against the Astros as he is good friends with Houston owner Jim Crane.
Harmon told Watney: “You could go with us and sit in the Astros owners’ box, but you probably won’t be welcome with that S.F. Giants hat.”
Watney did go to the game, but with some of his friends who root for the Giants.
Come Thursday, fans from Davis will have a chance to cheer for their local hero when Watney tees off at 1:14 p.m., starting on the ninth hole.
Notes: On Thursday and Friday, Watney is in a group with Bill Haas and amateur qualifier Jordan Spieth, a freshman at the University of Texas. They will play at 7:59 a.m. on Friday. … The group with the most star power is a trio featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. They were set to go off at 7:33 a.m. today and 1:18 p.m. on Friday.
— Garrett Johnston is a sports writer and video producer based in Sacramento. He has been covering the PGA Tour for the past seven years, and has followed Watney closely for the past two.