Six weeks now. Six weeks until America’s golfing championship returns to that place known as the Graveyard of Legends, San Francisco’s Olympic Club, where the chill settles, the fog swirls and expectations end up buried like a ball in the thick rough.
Olympic, alongside the Great Highway, a couple hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean, where the first hole runs atop the San Andreas fault and the last hole has a green fronted by bunkers that look very much like the letters I-O-U.
The Open, returning for a fifth time to the course where the putts often don’t fall, but the favorites do, and names like Jack Fleck and Scott Simpson have made history while making the experts wonder what is it about Olympic that turns the tournament into Liar’s Dice with bunkers.
“Of all the traditions in golf,” said the great Dan Jenkins, the third writer inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame, “the one at Olympic is the most annoying. Hold an Open there, and the wrong guy will win it every time.”
If you believe the wrong guy in 1955 was Fleck, who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff. If you believe the wrong guy in 1966 was Billy Casper, who beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff. If you believe the wrong guy in 1987 was Simpson, who beat Tom Watson by a shot. If you believe the wrong guy in 1998 was Lee Janzen, who beat Payne Stewart by a shot.
It was U.S. Golf Association media day on Monday at Olympic, with writers and announcers, ill-suited for such activity, hammering wayward shots while along the fairways workmen hammered together bleachers for crowds which may top 33,000 daily.
So many weird backswings by journalists. So many pointed questions aimed at USGA executive Mike Davis, one of those most responsible for the way an Open course is prepared.
Why has an Olympic Open, supposed to be a “Who’s Who” of golf, instead become a “Who’s He?” Is there something wrong with a course with only one fairway bunker and 348-yard finishing hole? When the lights go down in The City, to borrow from Journey, does golfing logic end up in the branches of one of the hundreds of cypress trees?
“Look at the final leaderboards,” Davis said of the four previous Olympic Opens. “It’s not as if we just happened to get a legend that maybe didn’t win. But look at who else was in there [on the leaderboards].”
Indeed. It was Hogan, Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt and Julius Boros in ’55. It was Arnie, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Lema and Dave Marr in ’66. It was Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer and Curtis Strange in ’87. And it was Stewart, Bob Tway, Nick Price and Tom Lehman in ’98.
All were or would be major champions. They just wouldn’t win their majors at Olympic.
“I think this is a marvelous test of golf, and that at the end of the day we can only do, and the host club can only present it, and then it’s up to the 156 players to figure out who is the best that week and get it [around] in the least amount of strokes,” Davis said.
Whether he’s the right guy or not.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHEN: June 14-17
WHERE: Olympic Club’s Lake Course
DEFENDING CHAMP: Rory McIlroy