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Upset Alley: U.S. Open Preview

Tiger, Phil, Rory, and Luke may want to skip the U.S. Open this year–at The Olympic Club thoroughbreds get trounced by dark horses

By: Mark Soltau

Appeared in Summer 2012 LINKS

WHEN IT COMES to hosting major championships, The Olympic Club plays no favorites. The bigger the name, the harder they fall.

In 1955, Ben Hogan thought he had won a record fifth U.S. Open title and was relaxing in the locker room, accepting congratulations. NBC, in the early days of televising golf, went off the air an hour before conclusion and declared Hogan the winner. He even gave his ball to a USGA official for display in the association’s museum.

That was news to 33-year-old Iowa journeyman Jack Fleck, who was playing the 17th hole on the Lake Course. Hogan was his idol and even designed a set of clubs for him to use that week. Fleck had pulled within a stroke with a birdie at the par-three 15th hole, then followed with pars at 16 and 17. At the short, uphill par-four 18th, where the bunkers spell I-O-U from left-to-right—purely a coincidence—Fleck flagged a 7-iron and holed a clutch seven-foot birdie putt to tie Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff. Both completed play at seven-over 287.

The following day, Fleck beat Hogan by three strokes—69–72—in what some have called the greatest upset in sports history. It was a gut-wrenching loss for the 42-year-old Hogan, who would win only one other official PGA Tour event, the Colonial National Invitation in 1959.

Little did Fleck know what he had triggered. Eleven years later at Olympic, another fan favorite was taken down when Billy Casper caught Arnold Palmer on the back nine (see Art Spander’s “I Was There,” page 26).

Casper was so far behind—seven strokes with nine holes to play—that Palmer offered encouragement at the turn. Although Palmer himself had erased a seven-stroke deficit in the final round to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver, no one had ever accomplished such a comeback on the final nine.

But this was The Olympic Club, where odd things happen. Through a combination of mistakes by Arnie and brilliance by Casper, they tied after 72 holes and the next day
Billy won the playoff.

Twenty-one years later, seemingly more than enough time to exorcise the golf demons, the 1987 U.S. Open returned to Olympic. Only the trend continued. Tom Watson, a sentimental favorite who had attended nearby Stanford University, seemed on his way to a crowd-pleasing second U.S. Open crown, having won his first five years earlier down the coast at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Only someone forgot to inform Scott Simpson.

A two-time NCAA individual champion from the University of Southern California, the quiet, slender Simpson, known for straight drives, a sweet putting stroke, and cool under fire, upstaged Watson. One behind on Sunday and playing a group ahead of Watson, Simpson set the tone for things to come by flushing a greenside bunker shot into the flag at the par-four 11th. The ball would have easily carried over the green, but stopped seven feet from the hole and Simpson capitalized on his good fortune.

He caught Watson with a six-foot birdie putt on the 14th green, then drained a 30-footer at the par-three 15th to take the lead. Watson answered with a birdie of his own at 14 to regain a share of the lead, but Simpson scored his third straight birdie, this time from 15 feet at the par-five 16th, to leap-frog Watson.

Now faced with the daunting, uphill par-four 17th hole, played as a par five by members, Simpson pulled his second shot into the left greenside bunker and faced a long, difficult sand shot with little chance of getting the ball close. Truth be told, he could have dropped a large bucket of balls in the sand and been lucky to get a handful within 10 feet.

“I thought about Fleck and Casper,” he said. “The one thing I knew I had going for me was that the veterans had lost here two times before. If Jack Fleck could come from behind and win, then I could do it, too.”

Naturally, Simpson hit the best bunker shot of his life seven feet from the hole and buried the par-saving putt. He also two-putted 18 for a par, forcing Watson to birdie the final hole to tie him. Watson nearly did. He hit a crisp pitching wedge from 105 yards straight at the pin, but the ball checked up 45 feet short, one club off.

“I probably should have hit 9-iron,” he said.

The natural amphitheater surrounding the green was packed, with seemingly all 5,000 spectators pulling for a Watson miracle. He almost obliged, but left his uphill birdie putt three inches short of the cup. 

But Olympic wasn’t done breaking hearts. In 1998, the U.S. Open returned, and this time the victim was colorful Payne Stewart. Despite an infamously poor pin placement on the 18th green Saturday, resulting in a plethora of three-putts, Stewart included, he forged a four-stroke lead over Tom Lehman and Bob Tway after 54 holes at three-under 207.

This was Stewart’s tournament to lose and the huge crowd was determined not to let that happen. However, two factors contributed to his demise. First, hard-charging Lee Janzen hit a drive into a large cypress tree at the par-four 5th hole and the ball didn’t come down. fter a nearly five-minute search, Janzen started to walk back to the tee to play his third shot when his original ball suddenly fell from the branches. Call it luck, rub of the green, or divine intervention, but he wound up chipping in for a par.

Stewart, on the other hand, had no luck. After he’d flushed a drive down the middle of the fairway at the par-four 12th, his ball rolled into a sand-filled divot hole and he wound up making bogey. That’s where it turned, as he went on to shoot 74 and lose by one to Janzen, who closed with a 68 to finish at even-par 280.

And while they weren’t majors, two other surprising Olympic outcomes are worth noting. In the 1993 Tour Championship, Jim Gallagher Jr. surprised heavily favored Greg Norman and three others with a one-stroke victory. The following year, Mark McCumber knocked in a 40-foot birdie putt to edge popular Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff.

The upsets haven’t been limited to professionals. In 1981, 19-year-old Nathaniel Crosby, the youngest son of crooner Bing Crosby, won five of the last 10 holes in the final to tie favored Brian Lindley, then swished a 15-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death to win the 81st U.S. Amateur Championship. Crosby, who grew up in nearby Hillsborough, a wealthy San Francisco suburb, wasn’t just a long shot, he couldn’t get odds.

But there he was, rubbing his father’s player identification badge from the 1941 U.S. Amateur for good luck, hitting miraculous recovery shots out of trees, and holing putts from everywhere. Nathaniel’s mother, Kathryn, had one of her late husband’s jackets altered and wore it to the final. Lindley never knew what hit him.

Remarkably, in four U.S. Opens contested at The Olympic Club, only four players have finished under par. This, despite the absence of out of bounds, any water hazards, and only one fairway bunker, on the left side of the 6th hole. What makes the layout so challenging? For starters, the Lake Course has subtle elevation changes and meanders through towering Monterey cypress and Monterey pine trees. Most fairways are narrow and you seldom get a flat lie. The greens are small and contoured, most sloping from back to front, and contrary to what might pass for local knowledge, not all break toward Lake Merced. It is a true shotmaker’s course, where about half the holes feature doglegs and require players to work the ball both ways.

The Lake Course will play 7,154 yards, which is 357 yards longer than it was in 1998. And while the USGA will do its best to create firm conditions, the course often plays longer due to fog and cool temperatures. The Pacific Ocean is about a Bubba Watson drive to the west and wind can be a factor on many holes. During summer months, typical weather is morning clouds and drizzle giving way to late-morning and early-afternoon sunshine, with fog and clouds returning by mid-to-late afternoon.

Every hole has changed in some way since 1998. Many new tees have been built, including the par-three 3rd, which now plays 247 yards; the par-four 4th, now 430; and the 6th, now 495. Returning visitors will be struck by the openness of the course. Many eucalyptus trees on the interior of the course have been removed for safety reasons, and a large number of stately Monterey pines have been lost to pitch canker disease, which has been especially devastating to the famed Monterey Peninsula. In addition, superintendent Pat Finlen and his crew have cleared overgrown brush throughout the course, greatly improving both the playability and the vistas.

All 18 greens have been renovated, with 14 restored to their original size and shape, and four—the 7th, 8th, 15th, and 18th—completely rebuilt. Poa annua has been replaced by a blend of 007 and Tyee bentgrass, which should translate to smoother surfaces and more putts made.

The green at the drivable 294-yard 7th is now two tiers instead of three. And the par-three 8th hole is completely new and has gone from a 137-yard patsy to a 200-yard uphill bully, requiring a mid to long iron to a well-bunkered green that offers fabulous hillside viewing for spectators.

While the course will again play to a par 70, there are two other big changes. The downhill 1st hole will switch from a par five to a par four; and the 17th hole will play as a par five instead of being switched to a par four as at past U.S. Opens. Both are significant. The 1st hole used to be a pushover and easily reachable in two for long hitters. Now, with a tighter fairway and heavy rough on each side, it could be a brute at 520 yards. As for 17, it boasts the most severe green on the course and was never designed to receive long irons, hybrids, or fairway woods. At 505 yards, it now becomes a birdie or eagle hole, which should create excitement on Sunday, although second or third shots missed to the right could catch a newly built bunker about 50 yards short of the green.

“The first six holes are going to be just brutal,” says Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA and the man responsible for the course setup. “If you play the first six holes in two-over, I don’t think you’re going to give up anything to the field. There is absolutely no letup until you get to the 7th tee.”

Davis expects players to make up ground on the last five holes. One hole worth watching is the dogleg left par-five 16th, which has been lengthened to 670 yards, making it the longest hole in U.S. Open history. Even with firm conditions and new equipment, this is a three-shot hole, although Davis will likely move up the tees on two days to tempt big hitters.

And if you’re wondering about 18, which did not leave a good impression in 1998, the green has been flattened in the middle to create more pin positions. At 344 yards, it seems like a harmless hole, but the fairway is narrow and the green is tiny and protected by bunkers on three sides.

Last year, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club by eight strokes. He finished with a record-setting score of 16-under 268, which might suggest Davis has a score to settle. Not so.

“Do we shoot for even par to win?” he said. “No. But having said that, I think at the U.S. Open, par should be a good score. It may be six-under wins, ten-under wins, or five-over wins. Whatever the number, winning is going to be a very difficult task.”

Especially for the favorites.                                                                                              

Mark Soltau has been writing about golf for 35 years and has won numerous awards. He has covered 70 major championships and is a long-time member of The Olympic Club. 

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