Some believe that each of the four times the U.S. Open Championships has been played at The Olympic Club, the “wrong guy” won. Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen might disagree, and they are right.
Jack Fleck shot 67 in the final round to catch Hogan and then shot 69 in the 18-hole playoff to beat Hogan by three shots.
Billy Casper was seven shots behind with nine holes to play and caught Arnold Palmer on the back nine to add a second U.S. Open crown to his resume. That was just one of four victories for Casper in 1966.
Scott Simpson birdied Nos. 14, 15 and 16 on the back nine on Sunday to overtake Tom Watson in 1987. Simpson shot 68 on Sunday to post 3-under par and clip Tom Watson by a single shot. They were the only two players to post 72-hole scores under par.
In 1998, Lee Janzen came from five shots back on Sunday to overtake Payne Stewart. It was Lee’s second U.S. Open victory and the second time that he had outlasted his friend Payne Stewart.
Of the four U.S. Open champions crowned at Olympic Club, two have won more than one U.S. Open and Billy Casper is in the Hall of Fame. Obviously Hogan, Palmer, Watson and Stewart are a more interesting foursome than the four previous champions, but it’s doing these champions a disservice to say that the wrong person won.
Colt Knost won the U.S. Amateur at Olympic just five years ago. During that 2007 season, Knost joined Bobby Jones and Jay Sigel as the only players to win three U.S. Golf Association events in a single season. In addition to the U.S. Amateur, Knost won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and was a member of the victorious Walker Cup team. After that historic summer, Knost turned professional and gave up the opportunity to play in the Masters and the U.S. Open the following summer. He is playing his first major as a professional this week at Olympic – where it all started.
Much of the focus over the years has been on who has lost the Open at Olympic rather than who has won. Maybe we should turn our attention to the fact that this golf course has created four of the most exciting U.S. Opens in history. Palmer proved that no lead is secure on the back nine. Simpson showed us that birdies can be made coming down the stretch. Janzen and Casper were both seven shots back during the final round and went on to victory without going into a playoff.
Olympic Club will play a little differently this year. The changes to the course over the past 50 years have been well chronicled by Golfweek. One long-time member said that the golf course is not as difficult this year as it was 14 years ago. He said that the rough is more manageable and that the greens, now bent grass, are easier. But the USGA and Mike Davis seem extremely pleased with the set-up leading into Thursday’s opening round.
If history is to repeat itself and one of the biggest names in the game is to come up a shot short on Sunday, then the game itself might just be better for it. Golf fans are better informed today than at any other time in our great game’s history. If Steve Stricker or Lee Westwood finally capture the major championship that has eluded them throughout their careers, would that be history repeating itself? If one of them came from behind to eclipse Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson on the back nine, would we still consider Olympic the U.S. Open venue where the game’s biggest stars can’t shine? Maybe we would but it wouldn’t matter. Because the U.S. Open provides more carnage and attrition than any other event.
The USGA says it doesn’t entend to punish the best players in the world with U.S. Open course set-up, but they will be punished. The USGA says that it doesn’t intend to embarrass the best players in the world, but many will be humiliated. Those players will stand there and take it for four days, facing conditions they won’t see for another 51 weeks and they will come back again next year. They will grind and fight those conditions and nerves at Olympic this week because someone will walk away as the U.S. Open Champion . . . and it will be the right guy, whoever it is. He will have earned every bit of that title.