San Francisco Love Story

June 06, 2012

Par-5 17th green (bottom left), 344-yard 18th.

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."

In short, there is no scraping it around Olympic. Even without a water hazard, only one fairway bunker and measuring less than 6,800 yards in each of its first four U.S. Opens played there from 1955-'98, the combined score by the winners was two over par. No "little" course ever played so big.

Giants of the game took note. After visiting Northern California for the first time, in the 1920s, architect Alister Mackenzie wrote, "The sand-dune country owned by The Olympic Club, although not so spectacular as that on the Monterey Peninsula, is the finest golfing territory I have seen in America." Hogan would call Olympic his favorite U.S. Open venue. Byron Nelson, after winning the San Francisco Open three times in the '40s, came back regularly in the '50s to play exhibitions and tutor the young Ken Venturi. "In my experience," Nelson said in 1998, San Francisco "is the best area in the country to play golf if you want to be a good player. I really loved playing there."

The city's best have always been artistic players, reflected in the iron mastery of Venturi and Miller, the short-game wizardry of Bob Rosburg, and the putting of George Archer, a foursome that collectively won the Grand Slam. Perhaps the best evidence the San Francisco area fostered complete golfers was the way Tony Lema, who grew up across the bay in San Leandro and worked in the golf shop at the San Francisco Golf Club, won the 1964 British Open at the Old Course the first time he ever played in the British Isles.

Miller, who was given a junior membership at Olympic several years before tying for eighth in the 1966 Open at 19, has been the most insistent expounder of San Francisco golf. "It was the greatest training ground a golfer could have," he says. "The ball never really went anywhere because of the fog; you had to be able to turn the ball both ways, had to be able to play from slimy lies." Miller always attributed his famous blowout wins on flat, perfectly manicured desert courses in the light air of Phoenix and Tucson to the contrast from San Francisco. "Compared to where I came from," he said, "the game was easy."

But just as Miller has been the last of the great San Francisco-bred players, Olympic's days of hosting the Open appeared to have passed with the equipment and distance revolution that changed pro golf around 2000. After the multilayer ball in particular instantly added 10 yards to the drives of most touring pros, the Lake Course seemed to get a lot less Olympian. The USGA thought the same thing, and needed to vet a lengthened version of the course (by about 150 yards) with the 2007 U.S. Amateur.

That championship went well, but the Olympic leadership stayed proactive, making even bigger changes that will allow this year's Open to be played at 7,170 yards, par 70 (see "A More Open Course," by Ron Whitten). Though still comparatively little on the card, Olympic will once again play big.

The Lake Course will feature the most rigorous start in major-championship golf. With the first hole being changed from an easy par 5 to a 520-yard par 4, the player is put on the defensive and doesn't get even close to a break until the drivable seventh, a par 4 of 288 yards. From there Olympic becomes a potential comeback course, with Augusta-style stroke swings especially possible on the last four holes: the 154-yard 15th; the behemoth, 670-yard 16th; the reachable but risky 522-yard, par-5 17th; and the 344-yard 18th, which will be given some finishing-hole rigor with a 21-yard-wide fairway.

Miller, also biased, thinks the new Olympic might prove itself to be the greatest test in modern championship golf. I look forward to a re-energizing of the once-vaunted San Francisco golf continuum. Before the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic, Rosburg, who passed away in 2009, fondly remembered his 1940s upbringing in the city's Richmond district, saying, "to grow up a golfer in San Francisco when I did was special." The local golf culture reached its peak in the mid-'50s, when Venturi and Harvie Ward battled for supremacy in the San Francisco City Championship, the amateur event that is the oldest consecutively played competition in the world. Their 36-hole final in 1956 at Harding Park, which Venturi won, 4 and 3, was attended by a gallery of 10,000. "San Francisco was probably the best city ever in which to be a good player," said Ward, who died in 2004. "It seemed like everybody liked golf, especially all the restaurant owners, and they treated us like we were big time. When we walked into one of their places, we were on par with Joe DiMaggio and Hugh McElhenny."

During Open week, golfers will outrank the Giants' Tim Lincecum and the 49ers' Frank Gore. Certainly the USGA will enjoy San Francisco. There's the great city itself, no lightning delays, and prime-time television coverage back East. But more than anything, there will be the anticipation of real history, a mystique that began with Hogan. As the USGA's Mike Davis says, "There's something magical about Olympic."

See, I'm not the only one.