When a US Open is held on a golf course atop the San Andreas earthquake fault, a course with no water hazards and some 30,000 trees, a course from which on two holes the famed Golden Gate Bridge is visible, what should be expected is the unexpected. Or so history indicates.
The long-held idea that the area is a bit off-kilter, reinforced by Rudyard Kipling during a visit a century past when he declared San Francisco “a mad city inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people”, is reinforced by the topography and results of major championships at Olympic Club, where the US Open returns for a fifth time.
It is the home of the reverse camber, fairways that curve one direction but slope in the opposite; of beaten favourites, from Ben Hogan to Arnold Palmer to Tom Watson; of foggy mornings and breezy afternoons; and of winners so surprising that to call them long-shots would have been an understatement.
For the 2012 US Open, Olympic will offer, on the par-5 670-yard 16th, from the new, if temporary, back, back, back tee, the longest hole in the 112 years the tournament has been played. Just one of the tweaks from the seemingly sadistic, if wonderfully forthright, executive of the
USGA, Mike Davis, who said: “The first six holes will be brutal.’’
Olympic long ago was declared the “Graveyard of Legends”, a place of which the Golf Hall of Fame author and journalist Dan Jenkins wrote: “Of all the traditions in golf, the one at Olympic Club is the most annoying. Hold an Open there and the wrong guy will win it every time.”
The wrong guy in 1955 was a municipal course pro named Jack Fleck, who caught Ben Hogan and then beat him in an 18-hole play-off. The wrong guy in 1966 was Billy Casper, who picked up six shots on Arnold Palmer in the last six holes – seven in the final nine holes – and then, déjà vu, beat him in an 18-hole play-off.
The wrong guy in 1987 was Scott Simpson who held off Tom Watson by a shot. And arguably the wrong guy in 1998 was Lee Janzen who picked up six shots on the third-round leader, Payne Stewart, and won by a shot, although Janzen had won the US Open five years previously.
What kind of golfer wins the Open at Olympic? A plodder. Someone who can keep his tee shots out of the Monterey pine and cypress trees. Someone who can conquer those small, subtly-breaking greens. (Casper didn’t have a three-putt until the play-off). Someone we don’t think will win.
Twelve years on, it’s interesting to study the 1998 scores. Steve Stricker tied for fifth. He’s still playing. Very much so is Lee Westwood, who shared seventh. Phil Mickelson, Stuart Appleby and Stewart Cink – the 2009 Open champion at Turnberry – tied for tenth in ’98. Matt Kuchar, then an amateur, was in the top 15, Tiger Woods in the top 20, Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn in the top 25 and Padraig Harrington tied for 32nd. Justin Leonard, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els made the cut. They know Olympic.
So does Colt Knost, who won the 2007 US Amateur at Olympic and after struggling to qualify for the PGA Tour showed his talent this spring with two third-place finishes heading into May.
Olympic doesn’t figure as the type of course which fits the Masters winner, Bubba Watson, who tends to get wild, but the way he came out of the trees in the play-off with Louis Oosthuizen, anything could happen. Maybe, for the first time, a favourite finishing first.
Olympic is about 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake fault, the one whose shifting in April 1906 caused the temblor, which along with the subsequent fire destroyed the Gold Rush city of San Francisco, runs below the first and second holes before it plunges into the sea. There’s barely a level lie on either fairway.
It’s from the tee of the downhill par-3 third, an unforgiving hole now extended to 247 yards, where on a clear day the international orange-painted twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge are visible. On the next two holes, the view is less appealing but the fourth and fifth holes are Olympic in the extreme.
The fourth is an uphill par-4 dogleg left with a fairway which slants right. The next, a mirror image alongside, is a downhill par-four dogleg right to a fairway which slopes left. The only fairway bunker is some 295 yards off the sixth tee.
It gets easier after that, up to a point. The seventh hole is 285 yards, drivable, but the notorious triple-tiered green now has only two levels. The once charming eighth, a 140-yard par three, directly below the stucco, Spanish style clubhouse, is now a 200-yard par-3.
“I didn’t even recognise what they did there,’’ said Ken Venturi, who grew up in San Francisco playing Olympic and won the 1964 US Open at Congressional.
That, of course, is the very place a year ago that Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland set Open scoring records, and the reason some believe Olympic has been set up so severely. Not this time, chaps.
Even in April, Davis, the USGA exec, was making alterations, ordering a new bunker for the 17th hole – a par-5 which for the first time in an Open will be played as a par-5, the first hole becoming a four – because he thought “Oh my gosh, we’ve made it almost so easy there won’t be any temptation to go for the green in two.’’
Olympic’s 18th is where, in the 1955 play-off, Hogan whiffed a shot in wheat-fields rough, now trimmed; where Arnie had to make a downhill four-footer just to get into the play-off after squandering that huge lead and where in the second round in 1998 on a green now rebuilt, Payne Stewart had a ten-foot uphill birdie putt which came up short and tumbled 20 feet away.
There are three bunkers fronting the 18th green, and the way they’re located and shaped, only a little imagination is needed to see they seem to spell I-O-U. The legends never collected.
This article was written by Art Spander for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.