The Olympic Club's 'major' moment
What does The Olympic Club going from being a venerated stalwart in the U.S. Open rota to the site of the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup mean? OK, it’s nuanced, and probably too much inside baseball for some tastes. But to close watchers of the evolution of golf’s majors, it matters.
There was a fairly recent past—after the PGA stopped settling on sites like Big Spring in Louisville (1952), Pecan Valley in San Antonio (1968), or Tanglewood in Greensboro (1974)—where the two championships pretty much shared classic, Golden Age sites such as Inverness, Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Oakland Hills, Oak Hill and even Pebble Beach. It raised the PGA Championship’s profile, and didn’t hurt the U.S. Open’s, whose brand remained old-world artistic, narrow and, above all, tough.
But for reasons of increased organizational competition for lucrative business arrangements—“follow the money”—the USGA and PGA of America are sharing fewer sites. It seems that a course signing up with either organization now means a long-term partnership.
In the case of The Olympic Club, it very likely means the U.S. Open won’t be going to San Francisco again for at least a couple of decades. After talks between the USGA and the club to hold the 2027 U.S. Open fell through, the PGA of America swooped in and closed a deal on Olympic hosting the 2028 PGA and the 2032 Ryder Cup. The San Francisco area’s other elite private clubs simply don’t have the physical footprint to hold the foremost national championship, so for the foreseeable future California’s U.S. Opens will take place on the Monterey Peninsula and the southern part of the state.
If so, it seems that something is lost. Olympic Club used to be iconic, in the same league with Merion, Winged Foot, Oakmont, Oakland Hills and Pebble Beach for holding the most significant U.S. Opens. The first two it held arguably contained a greater combination of drama and pathos than any U.S. Opens in history, with 43-year-old Ben Hogan in 1955 being beaten for his bid at a record fifth U.S. Open by Jack Fleck, and 36-year-old Arnold Palmer in 1966 giving up a seven-stroke lead on the final nine to tie with Billy Casper, and then going on to lose his third 18-hole Open playoff.
But the truth is, Olympic has lost some of its lofty stature since then. The 1987 U.S. Open (Scott Simpson over Tom Watson) wasn’t as good, and the 1998 event (Lee Janzen over Payne Stewart) further eroded the mystique. By 2012 (Webb Simpson over Jim Furyk), Olympic started being considered more of a problematic layout for the best in the world rather than a supreme test of ball-striking.
Why? Although its sandy soil, cool climate and ocean proximity gives Olympic an invigorating Scottish feel, the Lake Course is built mostly on the side of a hill that gives many of its fairways excessive slope. With the distance modern pros hit the ball, and the roll provided by agronomical advancements, keeping the ball out of the rough on tight doglegs that often have a reverse camber means pretty much eschewing the driver off the tee for 3-wood or less. The course also has trouble spots that even renovations haven’t completely cured. The 17th hole’s severe left-to-right slope in the tee-shot landing area is a flaw, and the short par-4 18th hole is a mediocre-at-best finishing hole, where tee shots all end up in the same bowl in the fairway and the severe green inviting trouble.
By branding the U.S. Open as the “ultimate examination,” it is the USGA’s charge to reward skill and punish mistakes to a greater extend than any other championship, without going over the line into unfairness. With advances in technology, that tightrope is getting narrower, and a course that has become too short or too narrow can cause the setup to go over the line. So that when the USGA senses potential for image-damaging setup disaster, its negotiating committee might drive a harder than normal bargain. Perhaps it’s not an accident that the USGA’s reported demands underwhelmed the Olympic Club membership.
This is where PGA of America has an advantage and is capitalizing on the opportunity. Its championship’s setup is generally not as stringent as a U.S. Open’s (Quail Hollow was an exception), with slightly shorter rough, slightly wider fairways and slightly softer and slower greens. The PGA won’t feel forced to push The Olympic Club to the edge.
That the PGA can be happy with a less-than-ultra-demanding course is proven by its decision to take its 2020 championship to TPC Harding Park, which lies nearly adjacent to the Olympic Club. Although Harding has successfully held a World Golf Championship and the Presidents Cup, there is no way it would ever be considered a U.S. Open candidate. It’s simply too short, lacks enough architectural sophistication and, without a drastic adjustment to its setup, plays too easy. But it can work for the PGA Championship, which by going to Harding gets the lucrative San Francisco market, reduces the risks of thunderstorms interrupting play and brings the higher television ratings that come with a California venue.
The PGA also has an extra weapon when it comes to acquiring favorable sites: the increasingly valuable and coveted Ryder Cup. When Olympic Club members had to choose between the U.S. Open and making a reported estimated $3 million, versus the PGA and the Ryder Cup and making a reported $15 million, it was a no brainer.
What’s the upshot? Well, the PGA continues to raise its profile by going to older courses in bigger markets. Meanwhile, the U.S. Open, hamstrung by the increased difficulty of setting up Golden Age classics to meet its playing standards, finds itself caught between two worlds. Super-tough Oakmont still works, as it did in 2016, but Merion in 2013 felt too small. Pebble Beach needs wind. Shinnecock Hills, considered by many of the cognoscenti America’s best championship course, will be under close scrutiny in June, especially because things didn’t go well in 2004. The USGA’s pragmatic compromise has been to be more amenable to modern and bigger, but less architecturally revered sites such as Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills. All three might have left purists cold, but they were successful financially, and in the case of the first two, had great finishes with superstar winners.
All this is not to overstate the change, which, again, is subtle. Torrey Pines in 2021 is the only non-Golden Age course the U.S. Open is going to in the near future, with the rest of the lineup reading Winged Foot in 2020, Brookline in 2022, the untested-but-apparently sublime L.A. North in 2023, Pinehurst No. 2 in 2024, Oakmont in 2025, Shinnecock in 2026 and Pebble Beach in 2019 and 2027.
But the loss of The Olympic Club as a place to hold the men’s national championship (the club will host the U.S. Women’s Open in 2021) fuels the notion—expressed by no less than Jack Nicklaus, among others—that the U.S. Open is in danger of losing its identity. The setup conundrum is a real one.