A Course You Have to Woo

San Francisco's Olympic Country Club, the site of next week's U.S. Open, offers a distinctive combination of beauty, history and class that is likely to confound the sluggers of professional golf but yield to a tender touch
June 12, 1966

In San Francisco mention of The Olympic Club conjures up joyous memories of athletic glory. Only the most recent of these concern golf, for Olympic was already 62 years old when it turned its attention to the game back in 1922. The sports it enjoyed were football, baseball, track and field, gymnastics, fencing, water polo, tennis, handball, boxing, wrestling, swimming, cycling and you-name-it. About the same time that the club was adding golf to its attractions, it was sending as many as 22 member-athletes to the Olympic Games and holding its own on the football field against Stanford and California and St. Mary's. It was a time when the country was dancing to Abe Lyman's arrangement of The Japanese Sandman and singing songs like "Barney Google with his goo-goo-googly eyes." Athletic clubs were big things.

Golf started almost overnight for the San Francisco Olympians. They bought up the 18 holes of the foundering Lakeside Golf and Country Club on the eastern slope of the sand hills between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced, an area that was already becoming a kind of golfing playground. Nowadays courses thrive there almost border to border for a stretch of seven or eight miles. The Olympians remodeled and strengthened the Lakeside course and added another 18 holes on the western slope of the hills adjacent to the chilly and roiling surf of northern California. On the top of one hill they built an enormous clubhouse in the endemic California motif of yellow stucco cum Mediterranean red tile roof and called the whole thing the Olympic Country Club. But to insiders in the golfing world the original course has always been "Lakeside." It is much the stronger of the two, so much so that when you speak of Olympic it is now assumed you refer to Lakeside.

Despite the proximity to the sea, the course is parklike in character, working its way over the rolling landscape that slopes sharply from the clubhouse to Lake Merced. It is an old-fashioned design, with small greens that are modestly bunkered at their entrances and for only about half their depth. The course gets its personality from the tall eucalyptus, Marietta pines and gnarled California cypresses that now dominate the once-bare area. There is not a hole among the entire 18 at Lakeside where huge evergreen trees fail to come into play. They are the hazard of the course, their dense branches batting down every errant shot, leaving the ball nestling in the pine needles below. The ground beneath the trees is meticulously cleared woodland, like a German forest. You do not lose golf balls, but you lose strokes. Olympic has no water hazards, and only one fairway trap—its trees suffice.

The course was slow to come into full maturity, yet some interesting golf was played there during its formative years while everyone waited for the trees to grow up. Macdonald Smith was one of Olympic's early pros, and Ken Venturi twice won the club championship as a junior member. The traveling professionals tested the course a couple of times in a now defunct event called the National Match Play. Lakeside finally earned national attention when the USGA selected it for the 1955 U.S. Open.

The 1955 tournament is still best remembered as the occasion when Ben Hogan just missed becoming the first man in history to win five Open championships. Hogan seemed to have it won as he sat in the clubhouse late Saturday afternoon with a 72-hole total of 287. Television had announced him as the winner. Then along came Jack Fleck, an obscure pro from Davenport, Iowa. A seemingly impossible two birdies and two pars on the last four holes brought him in with a three-under-par 67—one of only six subpar rounds throughout the tournament. His 76-69-75 was splendidly erratic, but it was enough to tie Hogan. The next day Fleck shot a 69 to Hogan's 72 to win the title.

People still talk about the awesome rough at the 1955 Open. During his playoff with Fleck, Hogan came to the 18th trailing by only a stroke. His left foot slipped when he hit his drive, the ball carried into the foot-high hay to the left and it took him three shots to get it back to the fairway, where he could take a normal swing at it. There is also the story about the golfer and his caddie who walked into the rough to help find a lost ball. The caddie dropped his player's bag, and later they could not find the bag.

Joseph C. Dey Jr., the executive director and supreme voice of the USGA, claims that the length of Olympic's rough was due largely to a misunderstanding. The club officials, somewhat piqued when there had been suggestions that Olympic rough would not thicken up, started growing it a year ahead of time. For a month before Joe Dey arrived on the scene from his New York office, the rough was not cut at all. Finally much of it was trimmed to the normal five-inch Open height, but sections more than 20 feet from the fairway were left more than a foot high.

For this year's Open all the rough will be grown strictly to USGA specifications—nowhere as horrendous as in 1955 but more severe than at any other major U.S. championship. Except on the fairways proper, which are generally about 35 yards wide at the target areas, Lakeside's various grasses have been allowed to grow to a height of two inches within six feet of the edge of the fairways. Farther out, they are four to five inches tall. When it is allowed to grow into rough this fairway grass is always far thicker than ordinary rough, and it takes great strength to force a club head through it with any speed at all. Those who hit the ball into the rough will need muscle to get it out.

Equally severe is the rough that will surround most of Olympic's greens. This greenside rough virtually removes the chip shot from the repertoire of strokes needed to win the 1966 Open. A ball must be exploded from it with a wedge, almost like a sand shot. When the ball pops out it has no spin on it whatsoever and seems to roll forever on fast or downhill greens. "You should be able to read the signature on the ball if the shot is played correctly," says Venturi, whose own detailed assessment of how to play the course is on the following pages.

Olympic, then, will demand precise and thoughtful golf. The home-run hitters, from Jack Nicklaus on down, are going to have to tame their instinctive urge to drive the ball out of sight, for there is hardly a straight fairway on the entire course. Nor are there any shortcuts available. Lakeside's dense trees close in on the fairways just at those points where one might be tempted to take the quick route across a dogleg. On at least six of the holes the pros will be wise to use a three-wood off the tee instead of a driver, assuming that the usual strong wind is blowing.

The players who will be in contention on Sunday afternoon will be the ones who can baby the ball into the little greens. It should be kept in mind that Lakeside plays at only 6,727 yards from the Open tees. This compares to 7,191 for Bellerive and 7,053 for Congressional, sites of the last two Opens. Nevertheless, the field will be hitting medium to long irons or fairway woods on 10 out of the 18 holes at Olympic. You could not find many other courses that would make this same demand on today's top players.

More important, though, is the manner in which these shots will have to be executed. On all but two of the holes the approach shot must be floated into the green from left to right with a feathery touch. Otherwise the ball may not hold.

When one thinks of those who hit feathery irons by instinct and preference the list is short—Deane Beman, alone among the amateurs, and Bill Casper, Bruce Devlin, Venturi, Nicklaus, sometimes Arnold Palmer, Gardner Dickinson and, of course, Ben Hogan. Defending champion Gary Player will have to make adjustments in his basically right-to-left game. He is capable of this, but it does not help his chances. There are a few others to consider, but almost none among the younger set or those who have been playing well in recent tournaments.

It is Hogan, though, that the mind keeps returning to when trying to decide who might best handle this course, and sentiment is not the reason. On the basis of his play in this year's Masters, it is safe to say that Hogan still drives the ball more precisely than any of the leading players of the moment. He still seems to have a greater variety of iron shots and a more secure way of striking them. It is only his putting that has been keeping him from winning. It has to be remembered that he was only two strokes behind the leaders at the start of the final round of this year's Masters, where the huge Augusta greens should have all but nullified the rest of his magnificent strokes. On Olympic's small and relatively flat greens Hogan's shaky putting will be less destructive.

So it is especially gratifying that this is the year the USGA finally decided to give Hogan an exemption from qualifying for the Open. In recent years, after his automatic exemptions ran out, Hogan has refused to submit himself to the sectional qualifying requirement. He has felt, not altogether without reason, that anyone who has won the Open four times should be entitled to a free ticket. Those outsiders who concern themselves with such things have taken his side almost unanimously, and so have a number of the high officials of the USGA. The USGA has been trying to find some special formula for Hogan's special case. This year it did the logical thing. It just plain exempted him from qualifying. After all, Hogan cannot go on forever playing the kind of golf that would win him an unprecedented fifth Open Championship, and if ever there was going to be a time and a place where he might do it, this year at Olympic is it. Whether he succeeds or not, the tournament will be a great deal richer and more thrilling for his presence. Constantly running through the minds of the thousands who will be in Hogan's gallery will be the thought of how close he came on this same course 11 years ago.

Hogan's reappearance and Olympic's stimulating challenge are only two of the reasons for the general rejoicing over the site of this year's Open. Most of the players, officials, press, broadcasters and commercial appendages of a major golf championship these days are happily contemplating the week they will get to spend in that most attractive of American cities. They are thinking about the weather, which will almost surely be cool and invigorating, what with the brisk summer breezes and the evening fog sweeping in off the Pacific. What a contrast it will be to the steamy mid-Junes of recent Opens in places like Tulsa and Washington and St. Louis. They are thinking about the dinners on the expense account at Amelio's and Ernie's and Trader Vic's, about drinks at the Top of the Mark and topless shows down in North Beach, of shopping on Union Square and of merely admiring the appearance of this dazzling, shimmering white city. But, finally, they are thinking of what a likely place this is for an epic U.S. Open, one where something especially dramatic might happen—like a win by Hogan or Venturi, or Nicklaus taking the second step toward a Grand Slam. Olympic makes one think that way.

PHOTOTypical of Olympic is the 8th hole, a short par-3 that is set in a tunnel of evergreens, with the city shining in the background. PHOTOThe unchanging Hogan at Olympic in '55. PHOTOThousands of spectators pack the hillside behind the 18th green during the 1955 Open, a scene that will be duplicated next week.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)