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Feel Like a Stranger - Unknowns Become U.S. Open Champions at Olympic Club

By: Jay Flemma


It's fitting that the town that gave us the Grateful Dead would also give us U.S. Open winners that amount to a decades-long strange trip. Or as Hall-of-Fame golf writer Dan Jenkins once wrote, "Of all the traditions in golf, the one at Olympic Club is the most annoying. Hold a U.S. Open at Olympic and the wrong guy will win it every time."

Jack Fleck upset Ben Hogan in 1955, Billy Casper shocked Arnold Palmer in 1966, Scott Simpson defeated Tom Watson in 1987, and Lee Janzen surged past Payne Stewart in 1998. Not exactly a murderer's row or the meat and potatoes of your fantasy golf team, but definitely seismic upsets of San Andreas Fault proportions. It makes you wonder what the Haight-Ashbury is going on here. But as one tournament official quipped years ago, look who Olympic Club gives you for second!

Still, the past champions all share several common themes that may help predict the winner this year. Not long, but archer-straight, and clutch putters: grinders, plodders some might say, soft-spoken bit players sometimes regarded as junior varsity. Bring them to Olympic Club, however, and their names get engraved on the trophy instead of the superstars. Weird things happen here with alarming frequency.

Why? Perhaps the golf course architecture plays a role.

"Everything Goes the Wrong Way"

"Olympic Club has what's called reverse camber, which means the hole turns one way, but the land flows the other, against the grain so to speak," explained Art Spander, perhaps the West Coast's greatest sports writer and a former PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award winner. For decades people took their toast and tea to his work in the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune.

"There's no water or out-of-bounds on the golf course and only one fairway bunker, but there are about 40,000 trees. There's no stretch of dramatic holes, but it's tough because your side-hill lie in the fairway will be the opposite of what you want for the shot shape required for the shot. The whole course is built on the San Andreas Fault, and the holes run sideways along the slopes, not up and down. It's quirky," he noted.

So if you want to hit the ball right to left, you'll find you have a fade lie, and vice-versa. It's reverse camber that makes Olympic Club the Lombard Street of golf courses, every bit as winding and circuitous as San Francisco's famous steep, twisting and dangerous road. Players have to tack their way around the golf course carefully. Moreover, everywhere you look, there's a dogleg, even the locker room. As a result, smart golfers lay back off the tee to put themselves in the best position for their approach.

"Hitting it 350 off the tee does you no good at Olympic Club," stated Bill Love, the golf course architect who oversaw the changes to the golf course in preparation for the 2012 U.S. Open. "The topography at Olympic Club requires that you to consider what will happen to the ball after it hits the fairway and runs along the ground. You must place the tee shots well, or they may easily run through the fairway or behind a tree, or to a terrible side-hill lie, and you won't have an opportunity for birdie. . . . Because of the topography, people will be forced to move the ball both ways, which is a good way to not only defend scoring, but emphasize skill in a player."

"They Lose Balls in Trees at Olympic Club"

The other thing everyone remembers about Olympic Club is the trees, or as Spander put it, "trees, trees, trees, trees, trees." For decades, the defining reputation of Olympic had been the challenge in avoiding the tens of thousands of trees that overhang the tees, greens and fairways, creating a tunnel effect in places.

Architect Tom Doak agreed. As recently as the mid-1990s he wrote that Olympic was "one of the most claustrophobic driving tests in the world: stand on the tee long enough and you can feel the trees growing inwards."

To make matters worse, many of the trees are cypresses - fragrant and beautiful - but with broad, flat branches that actually catch and hold balls in their spine-like needles. As one member said, "We lose balls in trees at Olympic. When a wind storm comes up, you can find 50 to 100 balls in the fairway that fell out of the trees." As such, Olympic got a reputation as the "Blair Witch" of golf courses. Great players die in those woods.

Happily, Oakmont started a great trend and now clubs across the country are treating trees as the nuisance they are - both for the turf and golf shots - and clearing them. Olympic has removed well over 600 trees, mostly dead or diseased according to Love, and a great many more were pruned. The course is still a tight driving test, but it won't feel anywhere near as claustrophobic as in years past.

Still, the reverse camber and doglegs mean that even with Mike Davis's more forgiving "graded rough," driving accuracy will be more important this year than in recent championships. From 2000 to '05, U.S. Open winners averaged T-9 in driving accuracy for the week. However, since Davis took over set-up duties and instituted "graded rough," winners have averaged T-33. This year should be markedly different though. Smart, defensive golf wins at Olympic Club; it rewards guys who make the fewest mistakes, not necessarily guys who make the best shots.

That goes a long way towards explaining Fleck, Casper, Simpson and Janzen. The architecture acts as a natural restrictor plate on the field, meaning the players will be tightly bunched. Happily, that also means excitement. While the winners have been regarded as somewhat milquetoast, the tournament has been anything but.

Faith Moving Mountains

In 1955 Hogan strode off the 72nd green thinking he'd just won his record fifth U.S. Open. So did everyone else. Hogan even handed his ball to the head of the USGA Museum saying, "Here, this is for Golf House." He was sitting with a few journalists - his buddy Jenkins included - talking about his victory when someone chirped up that one man out on the course was still in contention. He needed two birdies over the tough last four holes to tie Hogan.

Hogan asked who it was, and the journalist replied, "Jack Fleck."

Hogan looked thoughtfully for a second, and then said, "Well, I hope he makes three birdies or one. I don't want a playoff."

But what everyone else didn't know was that Fleck was using the latest model of Hogan's own irons, clubs he ordered from Hogan himself prior to the tournament! He had placed the order only a few short weeks before, and Hogan himself brought two wedges to Fleck at the Open. Metaphorically speaking, Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down and Jack Fleck did essentially the same thing . . . and with his own clubs! Fleck made two birdies, including a heart-pounding closer on 18, posted a 67 for an aggregate of 287 (7-over), and then held off a late charge by Hogan to win the Sunday playoff (right after the final round was concluded).

"Well I don't think he wanted me to shoot 80 with his clubs, now would he?" joked Fleck.

In a 2010 interview with your author, Fleck credited divine intervention for the win. He said he'd heard a voice tell him, " 'Jack, you're going to win the Open.' I looked around but there was nobody there," Fleck explained. "I said to myself, 'what kind of crazy show is coming on this channel?' "

But when it happened a second time, Fleck knew it was divine inspiration. "It was the Lord, and I have to give all the credit to him," he explained proudly. "The good Lord's intervention gave me the strength to win the Open, and I'm forever grateful."

Then in '66 Billy Casper authored one of the greatest comebacks in U.S. Open history (or Palmer suffered the worst collapse, however you want to look at it). "Buffalo Bill" - as he was called - had lost 50 pounds in the 18 months prior to the Open on some weird precursor to the Adkins diet that also helped his allergies and headaches: he ate moose burgers, buffalo, elk, and the like. Casper played the back nine of Olympic Club in the final round and a playoff in a scintillating 66 to Palmer's dismal 79, making up seven shots in the final six holes of the final round alone. It was terrible for Arnie fans to watch, but mesmerizing nonetheless. Most notably, Casper birdied the short but dangerously narrow and well-bunkered, par-3 15th as well as the gargantuan par-5 16th, which will stretch as far as 670 yards this year.

Even more interestingly was that while Palmer lamented the collapse throughout a sleepless night, Casper went to a Mormon bible meeting until midnight the night before the playoff, then ate moose burgers until 1:30 a.m. before filleting Palmer in the playoff. Casper donated 10 percent of his winnings to his church.

"I'm donating 10 percent to my business manager," groused a surly Palmer.

Incidentally, of all the winners at Olympic Casper is the most likely. He won the 1959 U.S. Open by bunting his way around Winged Foot West, then waited on the greens while much longer hitters extricated themselves from self-inflicted troubles.

Then in 1987 Scott Simpson, "tall, dark, and unheard of" as sports writer Rick Reilly put it, turned into Tom Watson once he got to Olympic Club, much to Watson's chagrin. Simpson made everything he looked at all week on the greens, and carded birdies at 14, 15, and 16 in the final round. He had four one-putts in a row on the inward half on greens that are like trying to read a Turkish newspaper, and he hit a flagstick on one hole, saving him from going well over a green into the gnarliest rough imaginable. He beat Watson by a single shot. Simpson, also devoutly religious, donated 10 percent of his winnings to his church just like Casper. Finally, Janzen, also like Casper, made up seven shots on the final day in 1998 to pass Payne Stewart and win his second U.S. Open title.

What does this all tell us? Every winner has shown: You can make birdies late at Olympic Club. Over the final five holes the contenders may make as many as three or maybe even four birdies. Nos. 14 and 15 are both short: a 419-yard par-4 followed by a tiny 155 yard par-3 with a flat green, a clear birdie op as long as you don't dump the tee shot into a bunker. Though 16, at 670 yards, is the longest hole in major championship history it won't play anywhere near that long all four days, and the 505-yard 17th is now a par-5.

The 18th, on the other hand, is another hole that demonstrates you don't need length and water to make a tough golf hole. It's only 355 yards, seemingly paltry with today's equipment. But if you need a closing birdie, good luck. The fairway is a mere 30 yards wide and abruptly stops 70 yards short of the green which, like all the greens at the Lake course, is frighteningly narrow. Three bunkers are puckishly carved into the shape of the letters "I.O.U."

So, for the most part, players will try to charge on the back . . . if they can survive the front side, touted to be the most grueling start to an Open in many years.

"One through 6 will be the hardest opening stretch of opening holes in recent memory," explained Davis. "Finish that 2-over and you did well." Find your way through the maze without being eaten by the Minotaur, I guess. In that stretch you'll find:

1 - A 520-yard par-4, the longest in major championship history (when does a hole become so long that we finally scale back the equipment? When will we have 750 yard par-5s and 350-yard par-3s?);

4 - A 461-yard par-4 in 1966, which can play anywhere from 438 to 470 today;

5 - A 498-yard par-4 (architect Tom Doak called No.s 4 and 5 are the hardest back-to-back holes in all of golf); and

6 - A 491 yard par-4; situated before the players finally get a breather at the drivable and uphill, 290-yard par-4 seventh.

So no one is shooting 268 this year at Olympic Club. Congressional's pedestrian front nine made last year's Open too much like an ordinary Tour event, but we won't have to worry about anyone breaking the U.S. Open scoring record this time. Indeed, Aaron Oberholser played a practice round the week before and said, "If the wind is blowing like it was today, it's going to be a bloodbath."

So look for a plodder to win, just like in the past. Ben Crane, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy (who golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. picks to win this week), Aaron Baddeley or Ben Curtis are all cerebral, workmanlike players with phlegmatic outlooks and sublime ability to put aside the crucible pressure of a U.S. Open. Ogilvy already has a U.S. Open trophy (from Winged Foot no less), and Johnson has a green jacket that Tiger Woods thinks rightfully should have been his. Also, Lucas Glover could do his best Lee Janzen imitation and win a second Open here (then bore us all to tears in the interview with stories of Clive Cussler novels).

Notice I've picked American players, despite Lee Westwood's Twitter assertion that "I've got the distances on my new irons dialed in." If you're looking for a foreign player, go with Tim Clark, the kind of underdog that can win a U.S. Open. He has a laid-back demeanor so he won't melt in the heat on Sunday, especially a major where length is not an issue. He's a grinder. He's got his good buddy Steve Underwood back on the bag as his caddie. (Cue the music: "Re-u-nited, and it feels so goooooooooooood….") He splits fairways with military precision and hits laser-beam irons, a must when trying to get on these tiny Olympic Club greens.

Hey architects! If you'd like to make a course harder without resorting to machismo-taunting length and ubiquitous water hazards - cough, cough, Atlanta Athletic Club, cough, cough - just make the greens smaller and add more contour. Just a suggestion . . .

One last note: Everyone who has won at Olympic has credited God in some way. It may sound strange to us, 57 years removed from Fleck's claim of hearing God speaking to him, but faith does move mountains. It was no less a person than Bobby Jones who said that fate has determined who will win a golf tournament before the first ball is struck. I can't speak for any of that - metaphysics and existentialism were never my long suits - but I think we all admit that with that kind of passion and inner peace as their fulcrum, people can move the world.

And so it's off to San Francisco, the vibrant hippie Mecca where anything goes. It's the Giants and the Niners. It's the Golden Gate Bridge and smelly hippies playing protest songs on out-of-tune guitars. It's Lombard Street and burger dogs.

What the Jerry Garcia is a burger dog you ask? It's the reverse camber of clubhouse food - a hamburger on a hot dog roll, the specialty of the house at Olympic Club. Even the food goes in the opposite direction here! If that's how they do hamburgers and city streets, no wonder we get weird winners.

Oh well . . . as architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, tip the world over on its side and everything loose lands in Northern California, or as San Francisco's own Bob Weir sang, "You know it's gonna get stranger, so let's get on with the show."

News, Notes & Quotes

By the Numbers

Olympic Club will play to a par 70, 7,157 yards, but seemingly uphill, side-hill all the way.

Did You Know?

Wilfrid Reid designed an 18-hole course named Lakeside Golf Club on the site where the Olympic Club is presently. The club bought the property in 1918 and an additional 370 acres of land in 1922. In 1924, Willie Watson designed the Lake and Ocean courses with the help of Sam Whiting, the club's head golf professional and superintendent. Following a bad winter storm in 1927, Whiting redesigned the two golf courses, moving the Lake course and the majority of the Ocean course slightly further east. (Hat tip: Tim Passalacqua of Olympic Club and GolfClubAtlas.com.)

Return of Did You Know

There are a total of 54 holes at Olympic Club. Bill Love has once again been retained to work on Olympic Club's Ocean Course as well.

Did You Know in 3D

In keeping with the theme of unusual winners, Nathaniel Crosby won his only U.S. Amateur title at Olympic Club in 1981, one year before the great Jay Sigel - golfer and insurance man - won back-to-back titles.

Bring Your Windbreaker

Even though it's June, it's also Northern California, so it's frequently windy, foggy, and misty . . . and no, Tiger, those aren't dancers at the local gentlemen's club.

I Had the Same Thing Happen to Me . . .

Back in '55, writer Bob Drum called his wife to tell her he had to stay an extra day to cover the Fleck-Hogan playoff. His wife accused him of lying and wanting to drink in S.F. instead. She told him she had heard on TV that Hogan won. He replied that Fleck tied Hogan, whereupon she said, "That's the worst name you've ever made up!" . . . which was almost exactly the same thing my girlfriend Britt told me when I was late getting home from Tom Watson's playoff with Stewart Cink at the British Open.

All This & Quirky Routing Too

The Lake Course does not return to the clubhouse at the ninth, but at the par-3 eighth instead: perfect time for a burger dog (or a moose burger, whichever you prefer).

Hossenfeffer Anyone

Arnie was so far ahead in '66 that he decided to try to break Ben Hogan's aggregate U.S. Open scoring record. He kept firing at dangerous pins and making bogeys, making it much easier for Casper to catch him. As one journalist wrote later, Arnie went for the record and forgot to win. "The first step in making rabbit stew is catch the rabbit . . ."

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.