U.S. Open

San Francisco Love Story

June 2012

It has been 35 years since I've lived in my hometown of San Francisco, and for as many of the great golf places I've been lucky enough to experience since, it's clear that I was long ago imprinted by the colors and smells and turf and trees of the city where I learned to play. Harding Park remains my template of an American parkland course, and Lincoln Park, with its bony and beautiful funkiness, prepared me to feel at home on the spare classics of the British Isles.

In my opinion, a San Francisco-bred golfer travels well.

The Olympic Club, by contrast, I think of as an unattainable ideal. Though it lies little more than a mile from Harding just across Lake Merced, the course has existed in the distance for me. I always looked forward to getting to the 14th tee, from where I could view Olympic's majestic cream and red-roof clubhouse framed above fairways and forest, the composition so perfect it looked like a painted '50s movie backdrop for Camelot or Shangri-La. I also knew Olympic was San Francisco's key link to golf history, the poignant place where Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer had fallen hardest, from where Johnny Miller had risen, and about which Charles Price and Dan Jenkins had written with mind-opening style in the coffee-table golf books I kept by my bed. The Olympic Club was my first and enduring connection to the game's unofficial but undisputed world rota.

I've always worshipped the Lake Course more than I've known it. Even after I got to play it a few times, I never wanted it to feel familiar. My most powerful memory of Olympic remains the first time I saw it close up, on the afternoon of the fourth round of the 1966 Open, when I was 12. After hearing on the car radio that Palmer led by seven strokes with nine to play, my father decided to turn off Interstate 280 and head for the coronation. When we got there, people were leaving, and we parked near the clubhouse. On the leader board was the unbelievable evidence that Palmer hadn't won, that somehow he and Billy Casper had tied. Palmer then walked by with a security escort, resplendent in a deep-blue cardigan and white shirt, even his bronzed face muscular, but his lips pursed and his eyes wounded. That image will always stay with me, but even more vivid was the emerald ribbon of the 18th fairway. It was akin to going through the doors of a major-league ballpark for the first time and looking down on the field, except that Olympic's shade of green was even richer than Candlestick Park's. The sensation was similar to the shift from black and white to Technicolor in "The Wizard of Oz."

So, yes, I'll admit major bias when it comes to evaluating Olympic as the premier championship site for a U.S. Open. But that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Olympic is inarguably special. Factor its full menu of components--45 holes, the 10-level downtown club on Post Street, a circa 1925 Arthur Brown Jr.-designed clubhouse, its setting on a rim above the Pacific Ocean that is also closer (six miles) to the pulsing center of a great city than any other current U.S. major-championship course--and it's hard to argue that any golf club offers more.


Even putting all that aside, for the purposes of rating a U.S. Open site, the jewel that is the Lake Course is plenty. The prevailing course conditions require more truly struck shots than anywhere else. The reasons are multiple: the heavy sea air, especially when it's windy; the rye/bluegrass rough that is thicker and juicier than what's found on East Coast venues or in Southern California; the ever-encroaching "catcher's mitt" trees that allow few alleys of escape and seem to contain the fog like a soup bowl; deep, greenside bunkers with dense sand that impedes the easy glide of the modern wedge; small greens with minimal "safe" sides that demand accurate iron play. Arron Oberholser, who grew up just outside of San Francisco before becoming a winner on the PGA Tour, calls Olympic and other city courses "the land of the 140-yard 6-iron," adding, "It's just a harder brand of golf than anywhere else."

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