It is where legends fall hard and the improbable prevails. The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
This is where championships seemingly destined for iconic players of their generation – Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson – slipped away in a manner that wasn’t by popular demand. A playoff loss to Jack Fleck. A back-nine collapse to open the door for Billy Casper. Overtaken by Scott Simpson.
Three visits to The Olympic Club, three U.S. Open heartaches for heroes.
But wait. Was there not another? Indeed, there was, though if you sometimes have a hard time recalling that Lee Janzen came from behind to edge Payne Stewart on the final day in 1998, there is good reason. Few U.S. Opens have had as many subplots that sucked attention away from the on-course competition as did the 1998 edition at Olympic.
The production may have ended with Janzen and Stewart as the last two standing, but it had been dominated by peripheral matters early.
“I forgot how much was going on,” said David Fay, the former executive director of the U.S. Golf Association.
“It almost overshadowed the championship.”
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Pre-tournament: The COR debate
It stands for “coefficient of restitution” and was at the heart of the raging controversy back then, “thin-faced” drivers. Speculation was, the F. Morgan “Buzz” Taylor-led USGA saw the U.S. Open as the perfect time to seize media attention and come down hard on manufacturers.
Purists couldn’t wait. Hot drivers appeared in the USGA Executive Committee’s cross hairs, and with so much invested in its Great Big Bertha and Biggest Big Bertha, Callaway Golf and its founder, Ely Callaway, had a vested interest. Famed attorney Leonard Decof was brought in to litigate.
“They can’t prove that technology is hurting the integrity of the game,” the late Decof said.
Meanwhile, Fay was given a prepared statement by a crisis-management team. He ignored it. “It made no sense to me. It was like fifth-graders were asking us questions.”
Instead, Fay announced that the USGA would establish a new standard to test for COR. Industry leaders such as Callaway, John Solheim (Ping) and Wally Uihlein (Titleist) came away with a sense of victory.
“We are not uncomfortable with what we see in the market today,” Fay said.
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Pre-tournament: Martin’s ride
He should have been a feel-good story for all of golf, not a lightning rod. But purists brushed aside Casey Martin and his Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome and said it was simple: Carts have no place in competitive golf.
Sympathizers pleaded that a cart was the only way Martin, who had an underdeveloped right leg, could play, and as the COR debate had done, this storyline sprinkled contentiousness into the San Francisco air.
It would take another three years for Martin to win his case against the PGA Tour, but while that was ongoing, Martin had access to a cart. Only at Olympic, it would be a single-rider cart that was new to him.
“First hole I used it, forget it,” Martin said. “It was a disaster.”
He told officials he didn’t have good control, citing elevation changes. Fay wanted to see for himself, so he took one of those single-riders across the street to Olympic’s par-3 course, The Cliffs.
“I thought I was on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World,” Fay said. “I told Casey we were sorry.” A traditional golf cart was given to Martin, and he shot 74-71-74-72 to tie for 23rd.
“There was a lot of stress, a lot of pressure,” said Martin, now the men’s head coach at Oregon, “so I was very relieved to have played well.”
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Friday: Back hole, front burner
Numbers tell one story. But images emblazoned in the memory tell an entirely different one, and Tom Meeks can’t fight that.
“Looking back on my USGA career, I’m not very happy with my Friday hole location at 18 (that year),” he said.
To refresh memories, Meeks chose the back left hole location on a green that slopes severely back to front (since redesigned from a 7-foot pitch to 4 feet). What is remembered are incidents involving Stewart, Tom Lehman and Kirk Triplett, all victimized by putts that got close to the hole, then drifted agonizingly toward the front of the green.
Lehman four-putted for a double and fell seven shots off the lead.
Stewart had an 8-footer for birdie that ran 25 feet below the hole. He made bogey, his lead trimmed from two shots to one. Triplett made triple, which included a two-stroke penalty for laying his putter down on the green to halt the ball from rolling back. Fay was sympathetic. “I saw him do that and said, ‘Give him an exemption for next year for creative protest.’ ”
“I can tell you that didn’t happen,” Triplett said, laughing. Then he got serious, saying that a bogey at 17 and the one he was going to make at 18 meant he had missed the cut by one.
“If they’re not very proud of their hole location, it also wasn’t one of my finer moments. I didn’t do it to show up the USGA. I did it because I was very upset at myself, that I had put myself in position to miss the cut.”
Meeks concedes he had reservations about the hole and to this day feels awful for what happened to Stewart and Lehman. “It had an effect on them in that tournament, no doubt.”
A former colleague said Meeks can be criticized for his demanding setups, though not that particular hole location. Had conditions not turned, it would have been fine, the ex-USGA official said. “It’s the smallest green on the course. What were we going to do, put the hole on the bottom third of the green all four days?”
At 347 yards, the 18th called for a 2-iron off the tee and a 9-iron-to-sand wedge in, so it behooves critics to digest cold, hard numbers. The 18th that day yielded 20 birdies and a field average of 4.247 – 11th-most difficult. Hardly the sort of punishing data that warrant hysteria.
Throw in two sidelights to the saga.
First, Jack Nicklaus.
At 58, he needed a birdie to make the cut at the Open for a 35th time. “Let’s see how the greatest player of all time plays this hole,” a USGA official remembers saying in the locker room to Davis Love III and Fuzzy Zoeller, both of whom had just ripped the hole location.
Nicklaus left his approach on the front right portion of the green, below the hole. When Nicklaus made his lengthy birdie putt, Love and Zoeller were silent.
Next, journeyman Lee Porter. He had endured a rough 1997 season, which he attributed to poor putting. The 18th didn’t figure to be up his alley, until Porter, from just outside of 110 yards, hit a pitching wedge pure and watched his ball land just over the flagstick and spin back into the hole.
“I didn’t find that hole hard to putt,” he said, laughing, though he knows he was fortunate.
“Later that day, I worked out and went back to the hotel and I remember getting a call from my parents, asking me if I was watching what was going on at 18. But I do think it was unfortunate that it didn’t stay overcast that day.”
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Sunday: Shifting sands of fortune
Having led Janzen by five at the start and by seven after three holes, Stewart stood on the 12th tee in front by only one and proceeded to split the fairway. “That’s a beauty,” Johnny Miller said for NBC, and on-course reporter Roger Maltbie added that “it should stay in the fairway.”
It did, only it came to rest in a sandy hole.
“That’s not very lucky,” Maltbie said, and Stewart savagely chewed his gum and stared at his fate. “The first fairway I had hit in a while, and sure enough I was in a bunker,” he would later grouse.
Hitting his next shot into a greenside bunker, Stewart made bogey and now trailed by one, for Janzen had birdied the par-3 13th.
Stewart and Meeks over that winter carried on a dialogue about sand-filled divot holes. Stewart said they should be ground under repair; Meeks told Stewart he should practice hitting out of them.
“You’re impossible,” Stewart once said to Meeks as they played nine holes at Isleworth, but the longtime USGA official takes pride in knowing the player eventually agreed it was as Fay called it: “Bad breaks that just happen.”
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Later Sunday: Oh, yes, the golf tournament
Though Stewart’s sand-filled, divot-hole bogey at the 12th hurt and put him a stroke behind, what gets lost in the equation is that he then bogeyed the par-3 13th but birdied the par-4 14th to pull even.
However, with a bogey at the par-5 16th, a hole Stewart had played in 1 under the first three days, his runner-up fate was sealed. Still, he had come one stroke shy not for that mishap at 12 or the fact that he famously got warned for a slow time, but because on a day when Janzen hit one fairway and 14 greens, Stewart hit only six fairways, nine greens and made five bogeys.
“I didn’t go out and do what I need to do to win the golf tournament,” Stewart said.
Then he added: “All the credit to Lee for an outstanding round of golf.”
Indeed, Janzen’s 68 – one of six sub-70 scores that day – helped put the focus back on the golf. Finally.