Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson will tee off together Thursday morning in golf’s equivalent of a Yalta Conference photo. But don’t be surprised if on Sunday, a more obscure name finishes atop the U.S. Open leaderboard at The Olympic Club.
The place that straddles the border between San Francisco and Daly City is known as “The Graveyard of Champions.”
It’s where the late Payne Stewart, dapper in his throwback knickerbockers and ivy cap, was overtaken in the final round of the 1998 U.S. Open by Lee Jantzen, a guy whose idea of dapper is an open collar.
It’s where the great Tom Watson, a gallery favorite during the 1987 U.S. Open – Watson had golfed for Stanford, 30 miles south of The Olympic Club – lost by a shot to Scott Simpson, better known as the straight man during the Bill Murray Show at Pebble Beach.
It’s where Arnold Palmer, beloved for the Sunday drives that defined his back-nine charges, owned a seven-shot, final-round lead over Billy Casper after the turn of the 1966 Open. Casper rallied to force the 18-hole playoff he won the following day.
It’s where Ben Hogan, on the cusp of a record fifth U.S. Open championship in 1955, lost in a playoff to Jack Fleck, an Iowa everyman who used Hogan brand clubs to beat his golfing idol.
But no event at The Olympic Club more dramatically underscored its indifference toward the brightest stars in the sports constellation than a first-flight, match-play duel during the 1939 club tournament between Ty Cobb – yep, that Ty Cobb – and Bob Rosburg, who defeated the 52-year-old baseball legend, 7 and 6.
Although Rosburg went on to distinguish himself as a one-time major winner and, later, as a golf commentator for ABC, he was not in Cobb’s league in terms of name recognition.
How could he be? Rosburg was 12.
“I really had a pretty good day,” Rosburg would recall, “and he didn’t.”
Defying his reputation, Cobb remained a gentleman in defeat, shaking the boy’s hand. And then?
“All his buddies started razzing him so bad,” Rosburg said years later, “and you know he was a pretty hot-tempered guy. He never came back to play the club again. … He dropped his membership, went down to Menlo Park (Calif.), and played the rest of his days down there.”
A golf club that could send the fierce and feared former Detroit Tiger to a safe spot under the couch is a golf club destined to frustrate a more relevant Tiger. But that’s the Olympic spirit: The club revels in its tradition of turning the tables.
It offers breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge, but those views are merely a rumor in the fog. The tree-lined test of the best golfers in the world this week, the Lake Course – it’s one of three at the club – has no lake, and, for that matter, no water hazards.
The Olympic Club was founded by siblings who were gifted artists and workout zealots 100 years before president-elect John F. Kennedy identified physical fitness as a bedrock agenda of his administration.
German immigrants Charles and Arthur Nahl suspected Prussia’s capitulation to France in the Napoleonic Wars was steeped in the inferior conditioning of the Prussian soldiers. The Nahls installed gymnastics equipment in the backyard of their downtown San Francisco art studio, which became a gathering place for friends – a 19th century version of a health club.
In 1860, the Nahls formed a club that used an old firehouse as its headquarters, and named it The Olympic Club, after the ancient Greek games. (The modern Olympic Games were inaugurated in 1896. Legend holds that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, creator of the modern games, made an 1893 visit to The Olympic Club to inspect the facilities.)
The Olympic Club’s association with golf began in 1918, when it took over operations and, eventually, financial control of the Lakeside Golf Club, south of downtown San Francisco. In 1922, architect Arthur Brown designed the clubhouse, which after several renovations still resembles Brown’s original building.
Although golf remains The OC’s signature activity, America’s oldest athletic club has long served as a hub for amateur sports ranging from fencing, wrestling and shooting (during the late 18th century) to such modern “extreme” competitions as triathlons, cycling and distance swimming.
The club sent 24 representatives to the 1924 Olympic Games, the same games depicted in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Heavyweight champion Jim Corbett trained and later coached boxing at The OC. Hank Luisetti, who helped popularize the jump shot, led The OC to the 1941 national AAU basketball finals.
A roll call of former Olympic Club members and notable guests reads like a Who’s Who of San Francisco luminaries.
“I feel like a new man,” Mark Twain wrote to his mother regarding his frequent visits. “I sleep better, I have a healthy appetite, my intellect is leaner and I have become so strong and healthy that I fully believe 20 years have been added to my life.”
William Randolph Hearst made an unsuccessful bid for an OC board position in 1887, the same year he took control of the San Francisco Examiner. He was 24.
Winemaker Robert Mondavi, investment banker Dean Witter and baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio often played golf at The Olympic Club, though not as well as Johnny Miller, who was admitted as a junior member because of his precocious ability. (His family couldn’t afford the dues fees.)
On a personal note, I am en route to The Olympic Club to cover the U.S. Open, scheduled to conclude – barring a playoff – Sunday, which also happens to be Father’s Day.
When my father was a student at San Francisco’s Mission High School, he worked as a caddy at The Olympic Club.
He never shared any stories about carrying bags for Dean Witter or Robert Mondavi, but then, the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, never really impressed him. Dad was more interested in the kid that needed a job, the hard-luck loser who deserved a break, the bird that wanted food before the squirrels beat them to it.
On Father’s Day, as I walk the course of 40,000 trees and remember the spirit of the man whose ashes we scattered 12 years ago, I will glance at the water underneath a billow of fog, and think: graveyard of my email@example.com