The nickname says it all: “Graveyard of Champions.”
Historically, when the U.S. Open comes to the Olympic Club, it’s bad news for the legends of the game; all four previous tournaments have seen an unlikely victor emerge and a golf icon fall.
There was the monumental upset by Jack Fleck against Ben Hogan in 1955, Billy Casper’s epic comeback against Arnold Palmer in 1966, Scott Simpson’s late charge in 1987 to best Tom Watson and Lee Janzen’s near-flawless finish to overtake Payne Stewart in 1998.
“In a lot of ways, at least with the U.S. Open, Olympic is remembered more for the legend of who didn’t win the Open as maybe who did win it,” USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said. “That doesn’t mean we didn’t have great champions.”
To Davis’ point, the victory by Janzen was his second U.S. Open win in six years, and Casper was a three-time major champion who tallied more than 50 wins on the PGA Tour in his career.
But the manner in which the Open has been decided at the Olympic Club is a bad omen for golf heavyweights such as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
When the Open comes to Olympic, it’s usually time to expect the unexpected.
Here’s a closer look at each of the four previous Open championships held at the Olympic Club:
Coming into the ’55 Open, Jack Fleck had competed in 41 professional tournaments and earned just under $7,500 combined. During practice rounds, Fleck couldn’t break 80. So to say the odds were stacked against him as he tried to thwart Ben Hogan’s bid for a record fifth U.S. Open crown would be an understatement.
When Hogan made par at the 72nd hole for a total of 287, he owned a two-shot edge on Fleck, good enough for NBC to anoint Hogan the winner as its broadcast was going off the air.
The only problem was someone forgot to tell Fleck.
He birdied No. 16 and scraped together a par at the 17th before burying an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th to set up a playoff.
On the extra 18 holes, Fleck jumped out to an early lead and held on with a score of 69, bettering Hogan’s 72 to cap off arguably the sport’s greatest upset.
While the drama of the ’55 Open was one for the ages, ’66 might have even taken it up a notch.
Arnold Palmer appeared to be cruising to another Open title, accumulating a seven-shot lead over Billy Casper with just nine holes left to play. But then the wheels fell off for “The King.”
Palmer made five bogeys during the home stretch and needed a par save at the 72nd hole just to force an 18-hole playoff.
While Arnie had a chance at redemption in the playoff, instead it was a case of deja vu. He led by two at the turn before bogeys on 11, 14 and 15, and then a disastrous double-bogey at 16 doomed any chance he had left.
Casper stayed steady to prevail 69 to 73.
Even a 21-year hiatus from the Olympic Club wasn’t enough to prevent another wild and crazy finish when the Open returned in 1987.
Tom Watson held a one-shot lead over Scott Simpson and Keith Clearwater heading into the final day. But Watson bogeyed three of his first four holes to create an opening.
It was Simpson who would eventually take advantage of it despite having a poor start himself — he bogeyed three of his first five holes. Eventually the field thinned to a head-to-head battle between Simpson and Watson on the back nine.
Simpson reeled off birdies on 14, 15 and 16; Watson would have needed to birdie the 72nd hole to force a playoff. His birdie putt narrowly missed, giving Simpson the latest improbable Open win in The City.
Like ’66 proved, even a seven-shot lead at the Olympic Club isn’t safe. Lee Janzen carded four birdies without a bogey in his final 15 holes of the 1998 tournament to turn a seven-shot deficit to Payne Stewart into a riveting one-shot victory.
Janzen saved par on the fifth hole after he initially thought he’d lost his ball, igniting his run to the trophy.
Just five years earlier at the U.S. Open, Janzen had also overtaken Stewart to pick up his first major championship.
The event was also a memorable one because of the entry and qualification of former Stanford golfer Casey Martin. Martin won a court decision against the PGA Tour that allowed him to use a cart due to a physical condition in his right leg that prevents him from walking a full 18 holes.
Martin finished in 23rd place.
Jack Fleck 76-69-75-67—287
Ben Hogan 72-73-72-70—287
Sam Snead 79-69-70-74—292
Note: Fleck beat Hogan 69 to 72 in 18-hole playoff
Billy Casper 69-68-73-68—278
Arnold Palmer 71-66-70-71—278
Jack Nicklaus 71-71-69-74—285
Note: Casper beat Palmer 69 to 73 in 18-hole playoff
Scott Simpson 71-68-70-68—277
Tom Watson 72-65-71-70—278
Seve Ballesteros 68-75-68-71—282
Lee Janzen 73-66-73-68—280
Payne Stewart 66-71-70-74—281
Bob Tway 68-70-73-73—284