Thursday’s trek out to the Olympic Club in San Francisco will be my fourth or fifth U.S. Open Golf Championship. I saw Tom Kite win at Pebble Beach in 1992, Lee Janzen here at the Olympic Club in 1998, Tiger at Pebble in 2000, and Graeme McDowell in 2010 again at Pebble. But I wish I could have seen the two previous Opens at Olympic where Arnie (Palmer) was overtaken by Bill Casper, and an unknown club pro named Jack Fleck took down the mighty Ben Hogan. Both are permanent parts of US Open golfing lore, in the favor of the underdog. Perhaps this week will yield another lasting story.
I have been fortunate to have played Olympic Club’s famous Lake Course back in 1999, I think. In fact, I played it exactly one day after returning from an overseas golf outing in Scotland, where I got to play St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Prestwick, and Turnberry, among others. The beauty of the Olympic Club stands out, with rolling carpet-like fairways, separated by gnarled cypress trees, shrouded in fog, the sun peeking out just right on the back ten*. It is a cherished memory of when I could still play a great golf course at a decent level.
Previous Opens (winners) were played here in 1955 (Jack Fleck), 1966 (Billy Casper), 1987 (Scott Simpson), and 1998 (Lee Janzen). The last Open was pretty exciting, with Payne Stewart leading most of the way, and looking to win his second straight Open. Turns out the 18th green was a real joke. Both Payne and Tom Lehman let the USGA know how unfair the green was rolling. Accordingly, they have completely rebuilt the 18th green to avoid the embarrassment of 1998.
Infamous “old” 18 green
But how many of you recall the story of the Olympic Club hamburger? Yes, the meat is shaped and cooked so that it fits in a hot dog bun. It is easier to eat while on the golf course, playing the ninth hole. But the USGA will run the concessions this week, and offers only a poor imitation. And why the ninth hole? Because the traditional “turn” occurs after the short (now 200 yards), cute, but beguiling par 3 8th hole. Actually, they lengthened the 8th from cute to about 200 yards. That makes the “dog” burger even more of a reward. Credit actually goes to Bill Parrish, who opened a small burger stand back in 1950, just off the grounds of the O Club. He served the small flat hot dog shaped burger in a hot dog bun to save money! On top of it all, it tastes great, especially when it can be eaten “one-handed.” The San Francisco Olympic Club is the oldest athletic club in the United States. James J. Corbett, the world heavyweight boxing champ from 1892 to 1897, became a member in 1884. They opened a permanent clubhouse on Post Street in downtown San Francisco back in 1893 (did not survive the 1906 earthquake). I have known several members of this prestigious club, but have not been invited out there lately (hint!).
In 1918, Olympic Club took over the Lakeside Golf Club, an 18 hole course designed by Wilfrid Reid. It was replaced with two courses after the Club bought additional land nearby. Scotsman Willie Watson designed the two new courses, designated the Lake and Ocean courses, which opened in 1924. Both courses have been remodeled and rebuilt numerous times, by the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Tom Weiskopf (I have played golf with his son, Eric), and Jay Moorish. Much is made of the small greens, which make Olympic the unique course that it remains.
These days, the Olympic Club does not produce many Olympians, as their name would imply. Ralph Rose, back in 1909, was a Olympian who produced a world record in the shot put. Amateur sports, like cycling, rugby, and basketball were emphasized over professional sports back then. In 1950, Olympic member Art Larsen won the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in Forest Hill, NY. But their “amateur” rugby team was found to have enticed athletes to join by offering jobs. It was a real, old-fashioned good old boys network, and still is, to some degree.
The U.S. Open Merchandise Pavilion, “Golf’s Largest Pro Shop”, was open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Thursday, June 7, through Sunday, June 10. During the tournament, it will be open virtually all day long. The pavilion provides a unique shopping experience with more than 400,000 items bearing the official U.S. Open logo, including outerwear, shirts, hats, golf balls and a large variety of championship memorabilia. I heard on the radio that this will be an experience unto itself. I already have an Olympic Club hat, so maybe a golf shirt or T-shirt? I did my share of retail therapy.
But back to golfing matters. The Lake Course is a relatively short 7060 yards, par 70 (35-35) from the Championship tees. But the slope rating is 143, with a course rating of 75.7, meaning it is very difficult. Even par by Lee Janzen won the last Championship here. The Lake Course is always rated in the top 100 golf courses in the country by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. My assessment of the golf and the eventual winner of the Open is this. Off the tees, the player must be able to shape their ball from right to left, or left to right. Approach shots must be accurate, as the greens are small and flat, more in the “old” tradition. And due to its proximity to the ocean, both course moisture, wind and fog may play a role in some shots.
Bubba, golf’s newest star!
So, who is my pick to win? For obvious reasons, the course does not fit the games of Tiger or Phil. Playing in the same group with Bubba will certainly make for some wild tee shots, and unpredictable decisions. Perhaps some relative unknown, a guy who hits the ball well, not necessarily far. Another Bubba lurking? Above all, he (the winner) will be the best putter for the week. Who are the best putters? Furyk, Donald, Stricker, or Tiger? We shall see.
*I say back ten since the traditional “turn” occurs at Olympic after the par 3 eighth hole.