The U.S. Open places a premium on emotion and psychology. “A lot of players,” said four-time Open champion Jack Nicklaus, “are eliminated the moment the tournament starts.” Nicklaus, certainly, wasn’t in that category. Neither were Lee Janzen or the late Payne Stewart.
The Open comes to San Francisco’s Olympic Club next month for a fifth time, and for a while now, we’ve been told how in those other four the wrong man won and Olympic, out there across the Great Highway from the Pacific, is the graveyard of champions.
The reputation is misleading. True, Jack Fleck, who stunned the sporting world and Ben Hogan at Olympic’s first Open, 1955, was little more than a part-time tour player, if someone who did use Ben Hogan clubs.
However, Billy Casper, the 1996 champion, also finished first at Winged Foot in ’59. (Yes, some consider ’66 the Open that Arnold Palmer lost rather than the one Casper won, but believe what you want if it makes you happy). And Janzen and Stewart each would take the Open twice.
The Open is not an evil trick. “Confounding the best players in the world plays no part of a U.S. Open,” said Sandy Tatum, the San Francisco attorney who on the way to becoming USGA president was competition chairman. “But the rough is supposed to be penal and the greens should be fast.”
To win the Open then, a golfer must drive accurately and putt no less accurately. Those unable to meet the demands often describe that type of player as a plodder, but as Scott Simpson, winner of the ’87 Open at Olympic reminds, “Jack Nicklaus was a plodder, but a long-hitting one.”
Olympic, no matter the result, has offered tension and excitement. Fleck and Hogan went an additional 18 holes in a playoff after tying. So did Casper and Arnie. Simpson held off Tom Watson by a shot, and in the end, after overcoming a seven-shot deficit early in the final round, also ended up a stroke ahead of Stewart.
“I went out and played my absolute best,” said Janzen, a man of little outward emotion, “and won the one championship I love more than any other.”
The one championship Stewart had taken in 1991 and would take once more in 1999, a few months before his fatal plane accident.
The one championship Janzen would win in 1993, holding off Stewart at Baltusrol in New Jersey, and would win again in 1998, holding off Stewart at Olympic.
That last round 14 years ago, Janzen played Olympic’s tree-filled Lake Course in 4-under-par 68 while no other contender shot better than 73.
“Lee seems to play his best in the difficult tournaments, in difficult conditions,” said Rocco Mediate, the man who carried Tiger Woods to 91 holes in the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines.
The 1998 Open was when a 20-year-old named Matt Kuchar threatened to become the first amateur in 65 years to win an Open. Kuchar ended tied for 14th. A week and a half ago, now 34 and one of the best anywhere, Kuchar won The Players Championship and $1.71 million.
But a major isn’t about the money. “Winning the Open,” said Janzen, “is the pinnacle for me.” Like reaching the summit of Olympus. Well, Olympic.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.