Recollections - Heartbreak & Hope at Olympic Club

By: Blaine Newnham

It breaks hearts and foils favorites. It plays among the shortest of U.S. Open championship courses and yet requires some of the longest shots.

The first time I saw San Francisco's fog-dampened Olympic Club was during the first day of the 1966 Open as I followed in the classic shadow of Ben Hogan, yep, right behind him and his caddie, watching one lasered shot after another.

The first time I was really aware of the golf course at Olympic was 11 years before, sitting in the stands at the minor-league ballpark in Oakland - rooting for the hometown Oaks - and listening simultaneously to the hole-by-hole reports over the PA system of Hogan's playoff with Jack Fleck.

It never went the way you hoped it would: Hogan losing to Fleck, Arnold Palmer blowing a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go to Billy Casper in 1966, Tom Watson losing to Scott Simpson in 1987, and Payne Stewart watching his hopes and putt slip down the 18th green in 1998 as Lee Janzen prevailed.

The Olympic Club - the site of next week's U.S. Open - is known as the place great players go to lose, where slow and steady - not spectacular - has won the race.

But to me, growing up in the Bay Area, the Olympic Club was more than just a golf course, or even two golf courses. It was about an athletic powerhouse.

I loved track and field as a youngster - Cornelius Warmerdam, the first man to vault 15 feet, did it for the Olympic Club. I remember Lon Spurrier breaking the world record in the 880 . . . for the Olympic Club.

In that era, great post-college athletes had professions, and then they had athletic-club affiliations. In 1928, the Olympic Club beat Stanford, St. Mary's, Santa Clara and Rose Bowl-bound Cal in football.

Olympic Club members have competed nationally and internationally in everything from rugby to fencing. Founded in 1860, the Olympic Club is the oldest sporting club in the country. It began downtown and had various locations, including one destroyed by the 1906 earthquake.

The Olympic Club is first and foremost a downtown athletic club. With 5,000 active members, the gorgeous clubhouse, designed by the architect who did San Francisco City Hall - Arthur Brown Jr. - and located near Union Square, has two swimming pools and two basketball courts along with handball and squash courts.

During the great golf explosion of the 1920s, Olympic Club built two courses out near the beach in an area that would ultimately crawl with courses - the Tillinghast-designed San Francisco Golf Club, the great muni at Harding Park, nearby Lake Merced and the not-to-far-away California Club, which was designed originally by icons Alister MacKenzie of Scotland and Arthur Vernon Macan of Ireland, and later, British Columbia.

Both the Ocean and Lake courses opened in 1924, the year the Olympic Club sent a delegation of 22 athletes - largest in the country - to the Paris Olympics. The golf courses were in an area where my grandfather sought refuge following the earthquake and fire, open dunes that are now crowded with twisted trees.

The Olympic Club is about sports and competition, not social climbing. It is a welcoming, fun, athletic place.

As a young sports writer in the 1960s, I was asked to play there a few times a year. After getting beat up on the Lake Course, I chose to play the much more scenic and playable Ocean Course which, unfortunately over the years, lost a few of its ocean-hugging holes to beach erosion. Recently, a third course was added, a par-3 nine along the ocean called Cliffs.

But with the rise in popularity of professional sports - the Giants came from New York in 1958 - the club's grandeur became more tied to golf and what will be in mid-June 2012 five U.S. Open championships. Only Oakmont, Baltusrol, and Oakland Hills have had more.

For years, the Lake Course, as noble as it was, was not even the highest-rated course on the block. That honor goes to San Francisco Golf Club, which wanted no part of national championships and was so exclusive it wouldn't even tell you where it was.

But the Lake Course has grown into something that is still in the modern age capable of testing the world's best players. Having played both courses, I can understand the charm of San Francisco Golf Club, where the only distances on the course are marked in the memories of caddies or old members. But it's not the beast Olympic is . . . and will be for the U.S. Open.


Lost in the playoff of 1966 - when Casper beat Palmer, was the fact that Tony Lema, who died a month later in a plane crash, finished fourth. And teenager Johnny Miller, an amateur, finished tied for eighth ahead of Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Ken Venturi.

It was Hogan who captivated me in 1966. You could hear the quality of his shot-making, literally hear it before you saw it. In a threesome that included Venturi and Frank Beard, Hogan, then in his early 50s, was clearly the best player.

Hogan shot 72 that first day even though he was almost palsied over putts. He shot 70 the last day for the tournament to finish tied for 12th, an incredible accomplishment in his early 50s.

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I have to laugh when people talk about Olympic being a "short" course for the Open. They've never had to deal with the damp air, the thick trees and the endless 440-yard dogleg par-4s, often with the hole going one way and the slope of the fairway another.

Mike Davis, the head of the USGA, has turned the first hole into a 520-yard par-4, and made the 16th a 670-yard par 5.

For a poor player it is the longest course imaginable. For one thing, every tee shot seems to be out of a tunnel and any shot that is wayward from the beginning is knocked down 100 yards off the tee.

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The trees have been thinned over the years. Given it was once dune-land, it is sad the trees were planted in the first place. Recently, the greens and trees were hit with diseases that caused a resurfacing of the greens with bentgrass and the removal of trees.

All, I suspect, for the good of the course and golf.

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Miller has predicted that the Open will be won by a player who can hit fairways, one skilled enough to hit a draw into a fairway sloping hard right, and vice versa.

There are few level-lies at Olympic, the rough is always tough, although not nearly what it was when Hogan lost to Fleck, and look for the unexpected, which has become expected at Olympic.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's par putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.