The Olympic Club in San Francisco, which hosts the 2020 United States Open, does not have the reputation that the top tier course which hosts the event possess. Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills, and Oakmont are held in higher regard than the Olympic Club, but The Olympic Club is in the next tier of venues.
“Olympic is one of the best,” said Jack Nicklaus, who knows something about golf courses. Arnold Palmer opined, “If you keep the ball in play you can shoot about anything. If you hit it in the rough, you are lucky to break 80.” This he said, ironically, just ahead of the U.S. Open Championship in 1966.
The one thing the Olympic Club has that those other courses can’t match is a string of dramatic finishes that have involved some of the biggest names in the sport.
Olympic first hosted the U.S. Open in 1955. Ben Hogan completed his 72 holes at 287 and was sitting in the clubhouse, thinking he had won his 5th U.S. Open, when unknown Jack Fleck birdied two of the last four holes, including a dramatic one on 18 to force an 18 hole playoff. The unknown Fleck then beat the great Hogan by three strokes the next day to deny Ben his 5th title. There has still never been a golfer to win 5 U.S. Open’s.
In 1987, another legend of golf was bested by a relative unknown. Tom Watson began the final round holding a one shot lead, a margin he maintained through the 13th hole. Scott Simpson, playing one group in front of Tom, birdied number 14 to pull even. Watson answered moments later with his own birdie on the same hole to regain the lead. Simpson immediately responded by posting birdies on 15 and 16 to grab a one stroke lead. Watson failed to birdie coming in, Simpson captured his only Major Title.
In 1998, Lee Janzen bogeyed two of the first three holes in the final round to fall seven strokes behind tournament leader Payne Stewart. Janzen rebounded with a birdie on number 4, but then hit his tee shot in a big Cyprus tree on number 5 and figured his chances were over. As the downcast Janzen was walking back to the tee to hit his third shot, thinking his 5 minute search time was over, a touch of wind dislodged the ball and it fell to the ground. The time limit hadn’t yet expired, so Lee returned to the spot and made par. He followed that up by going three under par for the rest of the round. Stewart ballooned to a 74 and Janzen captured his second United States Open by one stroke.
These three battles are among the greatest finishes in golf history, but for drama accompanied by agony they can’t match what happened on the San Francisco Peninsula in June of 1966.
The week started innocently enough, with the head pro at Tacoma Golf and Country Club, Al Mengert shooting a 67 on day 1 to take a one shot lead on Thursday.
One of the pre-tournament favorites, Billy Casper had seven 1-putt greens on day one. Casper had already won the event once, back in 1959 at Winged Foot and felt fortunate to come in with a one under par 69. When asked when was the last time he had putted like that he prophetically answered “Wing Foot in ‘59.”
Casper had taken off most of March to entertain the troops in Vietnam. He hit golf ball towards the Viet Cong to the appreciation of the troops. But his game wasn’t as sharp as it could be, due to the trip.
Billy followed his 69 with a two under 68 on Friday and shared the halfway lead with the biggest name in the game, Arnold Palmer. Palmer had wowed his adoring fans with the round of the day, a 4-under 66. This left the two rivals three strokes clear of the rest of the field.
Casper appeared to end his chances on Saturday, but his putter kept rescuing him. He scrambled to a 73 and lamented later, “After the way I played today, I’m just happy to be playing tomorrow”
Palmer posted a solid 70 to lead by three over Casper and four over Jack Nicklaus. Paired with Billy in the final round, Palmer opened the 4th round on fire, confirming his opinion that the Olympic Club could be had if you played smart. He started birdie, birdie, which led to a 32 on the front nine and a seven stroke lead with nine holes to play. His playing partner Casper was still second, two strokes ahead of Nicklaus, who was now nine back and would ultimately finish third, but seven strokes off the pace.
If Palmer could play even par on the back nine he would break Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open record by two shots. Palmer and the golfing world were about to see the incarnation of the second half of Palmer’s earlier quote.
10th Hole: Arnie bogies, Casper pars.
11th Hole: Both make par fours.
12th Hole: Both make birdie three.
13th Hole: Palmer’s lead shrinks to five, as he bogies and Casper makes par. Palmer is still on track to break the U.S. Open record, and appears to be in complete control of the tournament.
14th Hole: Palmer’s 30 ft. birdie try lipped out. Casper had a 10 footer to close the lead to four, but pulled it left to remain five back.
15th Hole: The par three 15th Casper was a little long and left, leaving himself 30 ft. for birdie. Palmer went at the pin and left it in the bunker right. Palmer’s blast from the sand was good, but he still had 10 feet to save par. Casper then did what Billy Casper did, and drilled the 30 footer. Palmer missed for a 2-stroke swing and Palmer’s lead was cut to three.
16th hole: The last par 5 was to be an adventure. Casper pushed his drive into the right rough. Palmer hit a duck hook into the trees on the left. From the left rough, Arnie could barely advance the ball out of the trees, leaving himself stuck in the left rough. His third shot made the fairway, but he was looking at 250 yards to the green while hitting his fourth shot. He sliced his 3-wood into the right sand trap, Casper’s response was to hit his third shot to 12 feet. Palmer’s explosion from the bunker left him 5 feet for bogey. Billy then drained his 12 foot birdie putt. Palmer made his 5 footer, quipping that it was “the best 6 I’ve ever made in my life.” But another 2-shot swing and Arnie’s lead was down to one.
17th Hole: Both players missed the fairway on 17. Palmer hit first out of the 4 inch rough and left it 40 yards short of the green in the right rough. Casper’s lie was better, but he also missed the green. Palmer’s pitch was good, leaving himself a 10 footer for par. Casper’s chip was 5 feet above the hole. Palmer’s 10 footer was dead center, but just short. Casper didn’t miss and the Championship was tied.
18th Hole: Casper put his drive on the right side of the fairway, Palmer continued to struggle, pulling his drive into the left rough. Palmer hit first and was a little long, leaving a 22 ft. downhill putt for birdie. Casper answered with a better shot, leaving himself only 15 ft. Palmer’s putt was short right, but he made his 4 footer and was in at two under, 278. Casper’s 15 footer wasn’t close either, and they were tied at 278 after 72 holes “It’s hard to believe,” Palmer lamented coming off the 18th green.
In the playoff the next day, Palmer seemed to be back in charge. He birdied 4 to take the lead, Casper bogied 5 to fall two strokes behind. Both birdied the par 4 7th. Casper birdied 8, but bogied 9 and was down two strokes at the turn.
Palmer’s lead remained two until the 12th when Casper sank another long putt, and Palmer missed a little one for a two stroke swing. Casper took his first lead in the tournament on his 85th hole when he birdied the 13th. Pressing, Palmer collapsed, playing the next three holes at four over. To the astonishment of all, Billy Casper included, Billy was the United States Open Champion.
Casper 69 68 73 68 69
Palmer 71 66 70 71 73
Palmer was 36 years old during his ordeal at the Olympic Club. He would win 15 more tournaments in his career, but no more Majors. Casper, who was 34, would earn 21 more wins, including the 1970 Masters. Palmer is currently 4th in total PGA Tour victories (62), while Casper is 7th (51). We’re talking about two of the most successful figures in the history of the sport, but the superstar on tour was Palmer. Casper’s victory, as is his legacy, has been shoved to the background. The story was, and still is, the travails of the “King” of golf on those five dramatic days.