This week the U.S. Open returns to the Olympic Club in San Francisco for the fifth time. Each time the Open has been played at Olympic the winning margin has been by a single stroke or in a playoff. All four previous Opens have had historical implications, mostly for the losers and how they lost.
In 1955, Ben Hogan was trying to win his fifth U.S. Open title, which would have left him with one more than Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones or Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list. Hogan dominated U.S. Open play in those years winning in 1948 at Riviera CC in Los Angeles; in 1950 at Merion GC in Philadelphia; in 1951 at Oakland Hills in Detroit and then in 1953 at Oakmont in Pittsburgh.
When Jack Fleck went to the Olympic Club in 1955 he had never won a professional event- let alone a major. He was playing with a new set of Ben Hogan irons. Fleck, in fact, had always idolized the great Hogan. Fleck started the tournament with a 76 and was nine shots off the lead set by Tommy Bolt. Fleck was probably satisfied since he hadn’t broken 80 in any practice round at Olympic that week.
Fleck rebounded with a second round 69, but stumbled with a third round score of 75. Hogan, meanwhile, was typically workmanlike in his approach on the rugged Olympic layout. When Hogan made par on the 72nd hole to post a 287 total he was congratulated by NBC color commentator Gene Sarazen on winning his fifth Open title. NBC was so sure that Hogan had won, it went off the air shortly after announcing Hogan as the winner.
The only problem was that Fleck, an unheralded muni-course pro from Iowa, birdied two of the final four holes to tie Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff the following day. In the playoff, Hogan was ahead by three shots after 10. But, he trailed by one when they reached 18. Hogan hit his drive into the rough and made a double-bogey 6. Fleck made par to win by three shots. He would only win one more time on the PGA Tour.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer was going for his eighth major, and second Open. He began the final round with a three shot lead over Billy Casper. By the time they reached the turn, Palmer had stretched the lead to seven after shooting a 32 on the front nine. If Palmer shot a two over par 37 on the back nine, he would break Hogan’s U.S. Open scoring record of 276.
Casper recalls, “You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine. Every hole, the crowd got bigger- until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV.”
Casper himself was admittedly ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Palmer’s head. At that point Casper was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema and as he stood on the tenth tee about to start the final nine, he said to Palmer, “I’d just like to finish second.”
Palmer grinned and replied, “I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
But, Palmer staggered in with a 39 and Casper torched the back nine with a 32 to move into a tie after 72 holes. It was the most remarkable comeback in U.S. Open history. Both players were quickly rushed into the media room where hundreds of reporters were much more interested in what went wrong than what went right.
For almost an hour they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot and this decision and that decision. Palmer sat there and took every question he was asked. When it was over, a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. “Naw,” Palmer said, “The way I played, I deserve whatever they do me.”
Casper left San Francisco that night and drove an hour to deliver a fireside talk at a Mormon Church he had previously committed to.
“A deal’s a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left. To this day, I can remember every shot on that Sunday and every putt I hit, but all I remember about that speech is talking about my trip to Viet Nam. It was eleven o’clock when the meeting ended,” recalls Casper.
He returned to San Francisco after midnight. His wife, Shirley, grilled him some pork chops and served them with green beans and salad. He went to bed and by his own admission, slept like a man with nothing to lose.
The next day, Palmer was ahead by two shots at the turn. He made bogeys on 11, 14 and 15, then doubled 16. Casper shot 69 and won the playoff. It was palmer’s third Open playoff loss in five years.
In 1987, Tom Watson was one shot ahead going into Sunday after bogeying three of the final five holes in the third round. Scott Simpson birdied 14, 15 and 16 late Sunday afternoon to take a one shot lead. Watson had a 35-footer to tie, but left it inches short. Watson never won another major on American soil.
In 1998, Lee Janzen beat Payne Stewart by one stroke for the second time in a U.S. Open. Janzen overcame a five stroke deficit on Sunday making the best final round comeback since 1973. What many remember most about 1998 was the hole location on Friday, where Stewart missed an 8-foot birdie putt and wound up with a 25-footer coming back (which he missed).
So, there you have it. Four bizarre Opens at Olympic. It was four historic losers in Hogan, Palmer, Watson and Stewart. It was four unlikely winners in Fleck, Casper, Simpson and Janzen.
Enjoy your Father’s day weekend and expect the unexpected at Olympic!