SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The names are etched in golfing lore, just not on the U.S. Open trophies won at Olympic Club.
Hogan, Palmer, Watson, Stewart.
Had they won when they were supposed to – won when they expected to – the muscular course perched on a sand dune near the Pacific Ocean might be described in more reverential terms than it is today. Indeed, it might have one of the greatest collections of Open winners, had not fate intervened.
Instead, it’s the graveyard of legends, a place where the hopes of the greats go to rest. The kind of place where Jack Fleck wins in 1955 playing Ben Hogan irons, when NBC was so sure Hogan would be the champion it went off the air after declaring him the winner.
The place where Arnie’s Army was just as crushed as Palmer himself when he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine Sunday and eventually lost in a playoff to Billy Casper.
“You saw it happening in front of you, but it was just disbelief,” said Art Spander, a Bay Area sports writer who covered the 1966 Open. “Arnie was The Man then, no one believed he could lose.”
Tiger Woods shouldn’t have even bothered coming here this week. History shows Olympic Club teases the greats, then sends them home exposed and suddenly very conscious of their vulnerability.
Hogan never won another major after losing here in 1955. Palmer would never win another, either.
Tom Watson never seemed the same after losing a one-shot lead with five holes to go in 1987, and losing the Open to Scott Simpson when his putt on the final hole ended up two inches short. Watson had won eight majors by then, but would not get that close again until 22 years later when he made his magical run in the British Open at Turnberry at the age of 59.
It’s not something in the thick San Francisco air, has nothing to do with the sloping fairways and awkward shots that test every club in the bag. There’s really no explanation for chain of events that gave the Open some unlikely – and unexpected – champions over the years at Olympic.
The winners of the four Opens here have a total of three other major championship titles between them. The runners-up own 27 major trophies.
The last to leave in disappointment was the late Payne Stewart, who had a four-shot lead in 1998 going into the final round at the last Open at Olympic, his name ready to be engraved on the trophy. Lee Janzen rallied from five back to beat Stewart by a stroke, though Stewart would go on to win the Open the next year.
Olympic has always been a puzzle waiting to be solved. Long before there was any thought of major championships being contested here, a 12-year-old named Bob Rosburg beat former baseball great Ty Cobb in the first club championship in 1939. The facts may be in dispute, but popular lore is that Cobb resigned in disgust for losing to a child and didn’t return to Olympic for years.
When the Open finally did arrive in 1955, Hogan appeared well on his way to a record-setting fifth Open title when he closed with a 70. NBC was so confident it proclaimed him the winner, and switched to other programming.
Still on the course, though, was Jack Fleck, a little-known club pro from Iowa. He birdied two of the last four holes for a 67 that tied Hogan and forced an 18-hole playoff. Fleck built a three-shot lead at the turn in the playoff and Hogan, needing a birdie on the final hole to tie, ended up hitting it in the rough and making double bogey.
“Being a Hogan guy I thought he would win even when Ben was one behind on 18,” said writer Dan Jenkins, who covered that Open. “I thought Ben would birdie, but he didn’t.”
One consolation for Hogan was that Fleck was using Ben Hogan golf clubs. The company had been founded only a few years earlier and was struggling, and Hogan was happy to get some publicity for the clubs – even if it came at a professional cost to him.
Fleck would win just twice more on the PGA Tour the rest of his career, and never won another major. But his win set a tone for Opens to come at Olympic, where greatness comes at a price.
Halfway through this Open, Woods appeared to be in control, back on his path to break the record of 18 majors set by Jack Nicklaus. Like Hogan 57 years before him, he seemed a lock to win another U.S. Open.
But this is Olympic, where the greats can be easily exposed.
“At the end of the day, it will all make sense,” Jenkins said Sunday in the press tent just as the leaders were about to tee off. “Or it will make no sense at all.”
TIm Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg