There’s a reason why the first turn at Talladega Superspeedway is banked 33 degrees right to left. If it were tipped the other way, stock cars racing at 200 mph would hit the counterclockwise curve and careen into the Alabama countryside.
Maybe that’s why so many great players have come to grief at Olympic Club’s Lake Course. The famous San Francisco layout, home next week to its fifth U.S. Open, has seen the game’s stars crash and burn, leaving our most prestigious national title to be picked up by a few surprise winners.
It all has to do with physics and engineering. When a course has holes that bend the wrong way and defy common sense and gravity, even Hall-of-Famers can succumb to golf’s equivalent of vertigo and stagger across the finish line.
In 1955, Ben Hogan fell apart down the stretch and eventually lost in a playoff to an unknown Iowa practice-range pro named Jack Fleck.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer squandered a seven-shot lead down the final nine and tied Billy Casper, who won the next day in a playoff. Scott Simpson was a surprise winner over Tom Watson in 1987 at Olympic. And in 1998, a future Hall-of-Famer lost his lead at Olympic as 54-hole leader Payne Stewart could not hold off Lee Janzen.
• • •
• • •
Maybe it’s too much to attribute all of that fate to Olympic’s design. But at a course where the ball can do some strange things, even the game’s best players struggle to maintain control and will find their best efforts thwarted by frustrating bounces. As Watson says of Olympic, “there are a lot of tee balls you’re hitting into fairway slopes. . . . If you’re cutting the ball into a left-to-right slope, I don’t care where you hit the fairway; you’re going to go into the short-cut rough. You’ve got to shape it into those fairways.”
It’s called reverse camber, and Olympic has more of it than any other championship venue. What it means, simply, is that the hole goes one way and the ground tilts the other. Sometimes, the hole doglegs right-to-left while the ground tilts left-to-right. Sometimes, it’s the other way. Whichever the case, it’s hard to keep the ball on the fairway, or even within the tree corridors.
In other words, with reverse camber, the golfer is fighting the terrain. And at Olympic, it happens on six holes.
Good or bad, that’s just the way the layout is routed. The Lake Course is part of a 365-acre property 12 miles southwest of downtown San Francisco that includes the 18-hole Ocean Course and a nine-hole par-3 layout called Cliffs that’s perched on a bluff along the Pacific Ocean.
The Lake Course, so named because it looks out over Lake Merced, dates to a 1929 routing by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting and is ranked No. 23 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list. It recently has emerged from a considerable massage by architect Bill Love, who added 350 yards, rebuilt every green to U.S. Golf Association specifications, opened up vistas through considerable tree work and renovated turf cover throughout.
The greens that veteran superintendent Pat Finlen manages are small, averaging only 4,100 square feet. With their new surface of 007 and Tyee bentgrass cut to 0.105 inches (i.e., a tad over one-tenth of an inch), they’ll measure at a Stimpmeter speed of 12.5-13 feet.
The fairways, a combination of ryegrass, bentgrass and Poa annua, also are small, only 20 acres total, with an average width of 28 yards and cut to a speedy three-eighths of an inch. There’s considerable tilt to the golf course, with many of the holes terraced in along the long side of contour lines that cover 190 feet of elevation change from the high point (No. 1 tee) to the low point by the 13th tee.
That reverse-camber effect makes itself felt early, with three of the first five holes at Olympic forcing a shot to be held against the terrain.
It starts with the 428-yard, par-4 second hole, which moves uphill and to the right along a fairway that’s tilted on a right-to-left cross slope. The effect is reversed on the fourth hole, a 438-yard par 4 that doglegs left while tilting right.
Then the par-4, 498-yard fifth hole flips back the other way. The effect is a tour de force unlike anything in major-championship golf.
One major routing change overseen by Love was a new, longer par-3 eighth hole, now 200 yards. It replaced the old, uphill, tree-cloistered 137-yard hole, which required a blind shot over an eyebrow bunker that was similar to (if shorter than) the two par 3s on the back nine. By swinging the axis of the eighth hole 90 degrees to the west, Love opened space to restore the back of the seventh green that had been lost, as well as to extend the ninth tee. The area now also has much more room for spectators.
The seventh hole, a par 4 measuring only 288 yards, befits USGA executive director Mike Davis’ penchant for half-par holes and more risk/reward drama. It’s easily drivable for the pros, but there’s considerable risk in the form of deep greenside bunkering, 5-inch rough around the green, and hole locations that are virtually inaccessible from the wrong angle of approach.
Davis’ commitment to diverse shotmaking includes closely mown chipping areas at seven of the greens. But for all his emphasis on subtle recovery options and graduated rough, Davis also is not afraid to amp up the place.
At Olympic, he suggested a new back tee for the already monstrous 16th hole, a relentless par 5 of 600-plus yards that literally crosses the border from San Francisco County to San Mateo County midway down the fairway.
The new back tee stretches the 16th to 670 yards, making it the longest hole in major-championship golf. Despite some pinch points for spectator traffic, expect that new launchpad to be used two days.
During a site review last year, Davis was considering whether to retain the traditional par sequence of Olympic, a course that during its four U.S. Opens started with a short par 5 and included a long, demanding, reverse-camber par-4 17th hole.
Davis opted to change the sequence, making the downhill, 520-yard first hole a par 4 and tweaking the 17th so that it plays as a reachable, risk/reward par 5 of 522 yards. His thinking was simple: “We want to hear those Augusta roars.”
In other words, more drama at the finish.
And he’s not averse to tweaking Olympic until the end in search of that theatrical formula. Witness his decision this spring, after all the flyovers and promotional course photography had been completed, to add a bunker 60 yards short of the 17th green.
The move eliminated a mindless layup spot and will require players to weigh a full second shot against one that’s more carefully placed farther back.
One other change at No. 17 shows Davis knows Olympic’s character.
Instead of fighting that awkward reverse camber, he actually exaggerated it by moving the tee left and widening the fairway on the right. It is, after all, a par 5, so the golfers are being afforded more latitude to crash and burn than if it were a long par 4.
He didn’t change the slope on that first turn. But at least he widened the emergency lane.