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Lake Course has seen many broken dreams

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Ezra Shaw

he U.S. Open is a movable feast, shifting from the old golf world to the new and then back again. It is a carnival of emotion and tradition that is both a national championship and regional reflection.

The Super Bowl and World Series are big-city spectaculars. The Masters never wanders from the red-clay country of southeast Georgia. But the Open has been played in the middle of Ohio and along the Gulf Coast of Texas, on the eastern edge of Long Island and now once more on the headlands above the Pacific, in the golden city by the Golden Gate.

The 2012 Open, which begins today, is the fifth to be held at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, where the length is misleading, the weather is confusing and invariably the guy who isn’t favored wins.

Broadcaster Ken Venturi calls Olympic “The Sleeping Lady.” But those who have been taunted by her narrow fairways or tricked by her tiny greens may choose other words, the sort you’re more likely to hear in a dockside cafe than on a tee.

There are no water hazards at Olympic, no appreciable out-of-bounds and only one fairway bunker, on the sixth hole. But there are something like 30,000 trees: cypress, fir and oak.

There are also the haunting memories of failed dreams. At other sites, maybe Pebble Beach, perhaps Shinnecock Hills, the tales are of those who won. Jack Nicklaus — who visited Olympic on Wednesday — Tiger Woods, Corey Pavin. But not at Olympic.

Here — on a course where there are too many trees, and as noted when the fog pranced in from the Pacific, too little sunshine — people write about the golfer who could have won.

They talk about Ben Hogan, beaten in 1955 by Jack Fleck, who at 91 years old appeared Monday at Olympic to reminisce and remind us he never received enough credit for that masterful victory. Which is true. We seem only to ruminate about Hogan, one of the best ever, unable to get that record fifth Open championship.

And if Billy Casper, 80, also a guest Monday, came in first in 1966, it’s almost an afterthought. Arnold Palmer let slip a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play in that Open, and so the man who came in second received more attention than the one who beat him.

The following two Opens at Olympic also were upsets of a sort. In 1987, Scott Simpson ended one shot ahead of Stanford grad Tom Watson, and in 1998, Lee Janzen overtook Payne Stewart, also by one shot.

The World Golf Hall of Fame writer Dan Jenkins contends that at Olympic, the wrong man always wins. It may be less harsh to suggest that the unexpected man always wins.

Olympic, with its rolling fairways and reverse-camber doglegs, must be approached warily. It can’t be overpowered like the Pebble or Congressional courses, which allow room for a bit of wildness. It must be treated intelligently and gently.

“You’re supposed to suit your game to the golf course,” said Nicklaus, whose first of four Open wins was 50 years ago this coming Sunday. “That’s why we play a different site every year.”

And now the Open has returned to San Francisco. We extend a misty welcome, wrong winners and all.


Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at typoes@aol.com.

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