Open course a graveyard of champions
The romance of United States Opens comes from the fact that they offer anyone with big dreams and a little talent a shot at one of golf’s most glittering prizes.
That anyone can, in theory, win makes the season’s second major notoriously unpredictable.
But hold it at the Olympic Club and one thing’s certain: The "right" golfer won’t win.
Four of the sport’s biggest names, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart, were denied by lesser lights on the shores of Lake Merced, outside of San Francisco.
They call the Olympic Club, which hosts this year’s Open starting on Thursday, the graveyard of legends, not just because stars were overshadowed by understudies in the four previous Opens held there, but because Hogan, Palmer and Watson would never win another major.
While Stewart — who tragically died in a freak air accident in 1999 — would go on to win the US Open the year after he was beaten by a sand-filled divot and a sadistic pin position, his conqueror, Lee Janzen, hasn’t won a tournament since.
The first, and most famous, victim of the Olympic Club hoodoo was Hogan.
Two years after winning the Masters, US and British Opens in the same year, The Hawk looked so certain to have won the 1955 Open — which would’ve been a record — that NBC closed its telecast by declaring him the champion.
But there was a hanging chad in the field.
A little-known journeyman pro from Iowa named Jack Fleck, who did yoga and listened to Mario Lanza records — and, ironically, worshipped Hogan — used clubs Hogan had given him to make a birdie at the last hole to force an 18-hole Monday playoff where he’d go on to author perhaps the greatest upset in golf history.
The now 90-year-old Fleck, who will be in San Francisco this week, would never go on to great heights, winning just two more events in his career.
Palmer held a seven-stroke lead going into the final nine holes of the 1966 Open when he inexplicably imploded, allowing the under-appreciated Billy Casper to catch him and then beat him in an 18-hole playoff.
“I let my attention wander from the realities — winning the tournament — to pursuing another goal: beating the U.S. Open record of 276 shot by Ben Hogan in 1948,” Palmer would write in his autobiography.
The Open returned to the Olympic Club in 1987 where Tom Watson — who went to nearby Stanford — looked sure to have his hands on a ninth major, which would’ve tied him with Hogan and Gary Player.
But Scott Simpson made a mile of putts coming home to deny Watson by a single stroke, the same method and margin of victory enjoyed by Janzen in 1998 over Stewart.
Who, then, might be this year’s Fleck, Casper, Simpson or Janzen who’d deny a Woods, or a Mickelson, or a McIlroy?
1. Jason Dufner — It’s hard to call a player who’s broken through for the first two wins of his PGA Tour career this year a dark horse, but Dufner, with his plodding, unspectacular game — and matching personality — would fit the Olympic Club motif. He’s never finished better than tied for 40th at his nation’s championship, but Dufner hits it straight and putts well enough to contend and, remember, lost last year’s PGA Championship in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
2. Ben Crane — When I first interviewed him he began by warning me that he’d be the most boring interview I’d ever had, then proceeded to prove himself right. Crane’s actually amusing — as his Golf Boys video antics show — and while there’s nothing particularly special about his golf game, he seems to do well on the West Coast. Known as one of the game’s slowest players, the likely glacial pace of play at Olympic Club probably won't bother him.
3. Jim Herman — Fifty-seven years later, this former club professional from Cincinnati who’s kicking around golf’s minor leagues — he has a lone top 10 this year on the Nationwide Tour — would be the perfect Jack Fleck of his generation.
4. Zach Johnson — Of course, he’s already a Masters champion but hardly a household name. Johnson has a real chance at the Olympic Club because he plays very well on hard and fast golf courses — he won this year at Colonial, Hogan’s old stomping ground — and Johnny Miller says there isn’t a course in America that will play as fast as his boyhood track.
5. Spencer Levin — The chain-smoking Californian with a short fuse learned a lot from his Sunday meltdown at Memorial, when he was overtaken by Tiger Woods. He’s feisty and plays with a lot of heart, but has never won on the PGA Tour, which is why he’d be a perfect champion for the Olympic Club.
6. Geoff Ogilvy — The lean Aussie with a soft touch around the greens shocked the world by winning the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie imploded on the final hole. It seemed he’d go on to greater things but he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in two years and his world ranking’s fallen to 50th. His generation’s Lee Janzen? Maybe. But, remember, Janzen won two U.S. Opens.
7. John Senden — Ask a PGA Tour professional about the best ball-strikers in the game and Senden’s name will be near the top of the list. But despite the impressive swing, the tall, 40-year-old Australian has only managed to win once in his career, at the 2006 John Deere Classic. His putter tends to sputter under pressure and he’s never sniffed a major, making him a good bet at the Olympic Club.
8. Brandt Snedeker — The 31-year-old out of Nashville has one top-10 finish in six U.S. Opens but he’s coming off his third career win this year at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. He loves California courses and on his day is as good on the greens as anyone in golf. U.S. Opens are often decided by the player who can drain the six-footers for par.
9. Mark Wilson — A 15-year pro from Wisconsin who’s found his game in recent years, Wilson’s the kind of plodder who can win a U.S. Open. He hits fairways and greens and doesn’t often three-putt. His last three wins have come west of the Mississippi.
10. Y.E. Yang — He’s pretty much fallen off the map since becoming the first man to beat Tiger Woods when he’s had the lead on the final day of a major. At last year’s Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Australia, International team fans cheered him on by yelling, “K.J.”, thinking he was fellow Korean K.J. Choi, who, unlike Yang, has never won a major. Given that, like Rodney Dangerfield, Yang gets no respect, he’d be the perfect champion at Olympic Club.