The Olympic Club represents San Francisco in the extreme. It’s a place of too many trees and too little sunshine, no water hazards or out-of-bounds. But it does have an earthquake fault line running right beneath it and well-earned reputation for unpredictable results.
The Olympic Club’s famous “IOU bunkers” are clearly visible from the 18th tee. (Getty Images)
By Art Spander, Special to PGATOUR.COM
It is a place of mist, myth and memories, some wonderful, some not. The Olympic Club was where Ben Hogan walked away in defeat, Ty Cobb stomped off in anger and numerous people less famous but no less fortunate spend hours stacking up dominoes, knocking in putts and tossing down drinks.
Olympic, where for a fifth time America’s golfing championship, the U.S. Open, will be played June 14-17, represents San Francisco in the extreme, with plenty of history and humor compressed into a magnificent Spanish-style clubhouse and onto two wonderful courses.
The Lake Course, where the U.S. Open will be held, is a gem of San Francisco and a bane of favorites, a place of too many trees – some 30,000 – too little sunshine and holes where the ball might not roll because of the heavy conditions but the score certainly can roll up.
What’s fascinating about Olympic, in addition to the fact there are no water hazards, no out-of-bounds and only one fairway bunker – on the sixth – is that it is within the limits of one of America’s most famous cities, not to mention arguably America’s favorite city.
The San Andreas earthquake fault runs below your spikes. A green fronted by bunkers shaped without much imagination that spell “IOU’’ is at the end of the journey. Stone tablets that mark the last duel in California are across the way, adjacent to another great course, San Francisco Golf Club.
Ken Venturi, a member and club champion in the 1950s, calls Olympic “the sleeping lady” because it is so deceptive. Distances on the card have little to do with reality. Johnny Miller, the first junior member on merit because his parents didn’t belong, calls it “the most no-nonsense course in the world.’’
Venturi and Miller each would graduate from Lincoln High, a few miles from Olympic; each would win an Open at another venue, Venturi at Congressional in 1964, Miller at Oakmont in 1973; and each would become a television commentator.
Olympic, according to the World Golf Hall of Fame author and journalist Dan Jenkins is “where the wrong guy wins every time.” Only if you thought the right guy was Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Payne Stewart. And a great many did. Including Jenkins, who, from Fort Worth as was Hogan, properly idolized Ben.
The idea Olympic is the “graveyard of legends,” as emphasized at each subsequent Open, developed because in the first one held there, 1955, Jack Fleck, from a municipal course in Iowa, upset Hogan, as well as people named Middlecoff, Snead and Littler. Fleck, using Hogan clubs, caught Ben over the final holes and then beat him in the 18-hole playoff.
When 11 years later the Open returned to Olympic, located just across a highway and some sand dunes from the Pacific, the plot was similar. Only the characters had changed. Arnie was the man and with nine holes left also was the leader by seven shots.
But he stumbled and Billy Casper gained, and, lo, another playoff, won by Casper. If people thought it was a fluke, well, it was Billy’s second Open championship. So there.
Not until 1987 did the Open come back to Olympic. This time it was Scott Simpson, the classic plodder on a plodder’s course, finishing a shot in front of Tom Watson, who had graduated from Stanford 30 miles down the road.
In 1998, Payne Stewart was leading several holes into the final round, but Lee Janzen was the winner, for a second time. Not much of a personality, said the critics, but they couldn’t criticize his golf.
If San Francisco is a town with the so-called “crookedest street in the world,” Lombard, it stands to reason Olympic would also be a bit off kilter. Three holes, the fourth, fifth and ninth, dogleg in one direction and lean in the opposite. The uphill fourth hooks left and leans right, giving new meaning to the term keeping one’s balance during a round.
From the first and third tees, the Golden Gate Bridge, which just turned 75 years old, is visible. If there’s no fog, that is.
The Olympic Club was famous for amateur athletes even before golf joined the list of activities in the 1920s. The club’s symbol, the “”Flying O” that looks suspiciously like the logo for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, was well known in the 1920s and ’30s.
Olympic, which started in a firehouse in 1860 and calls itself America’s “oldest athletic club,” had 23 members in the 1924 Paris Olympiad, the one glorified by the movie “Chariots of Fire.” There were water polo champions, swimming champions, handball champions and wrestling champions.
Cornelius Warmerdam set world records in the pole vault while representing the club. Lon Spurrier broke the world mark in the 880 run as an Olympian. Hank Luisetti played on the OC basketball squad. “”Gentleman” Jim Corbett boxed for OC before turning pro.
Mark Twain, who either said or didn’t say the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco — no matter the source, the contention is undeniable — was an Olympian around the turn of the Century.
The late Bob Rosburg, like Venturi and Miller a major champion, winning the 1959 PGA Championship, belonged to Olympic. As a 12-year-old in 1939, Rosburg beat Ty Cobb, 7 and 6, in a flight of the club championship. The baseball great protested a kid being allowed in the club championship, threw his clubs in the trunk of his car and, unlike the Open, never returned to the club.
Award-winning golf writer Art Spander has worked in the San Francisco area since 1965. In 2007, he was honored with the Masters Major Achievement Award and in 2009 received the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award.