The Olympic Club's history goes beyond US Opens

The Olympic Club's history goes beyond US Opens

Published Jun. 8, 2012 10:00 p.m. ET

Next week's U.S. Open host has conquered far more than golf's greatest.

Little black books buried in the archives of The Olympic Club reveal a place that groomed gold medalists and heavyweight champions, whipped writer Mark Twain into shape and whose members teased Ty Cobb so much after he lost to a 12-year-old that the baseball great rarely returned.

Following in the footsteps of this eccentric city built on steep hills and shaky ground, little about the nation's oldest athletic club - from the wacky weather to the hot-dog shaped hamburgers - conforms to conventional standards.

''The whole place is unique,'' superintendent Pat Finlen said. ''You look through the lineage and names, and there are a lot of names. What I've always found interesting is most private clubs have a horizontal membership from a socioeconomic standpoint. The Olympic Club is vertical.


''You can have someone who's a fireman or a policeman, or somebody just across the street, all the way up to major celebrities. There are people from all walks of life.''

The club's official roots date back to May 6, 1860, when 23 charter members founded the San Francisco Olympic Club, which started as informal gymnastics workouts in the backyard of Arthur and Charles Nahl.

The great 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the original downtown facility, later reconstructed on Post Street. The group assumed control of the Lakeside Golf Club in 1918 and still maintains both facilities.

Amateur athletics boomed during those early years and Olympic became a premier West Coast training destination.

In 1892, member ''Gentleman Jim Corbett'' won the heavyweight title. Ralph Rose took home six total medals (three gold) from the discus, hammer and shot put over the 1904, 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games. In 1924, the club sent 22 Olympians to Paris - the largest single delegation from any membership.

''People came from all over to train because there was really no other place on the West Coast with such facilities,'' club historian Jessica Smith said.

Even some without sports pedigrees.

Long before he penned ''Tom Sawyer'' or ''Huckleberry Finn,'' Twain made his mark at Olympic Club. At first, he spent more time pulling pranks than anything else.

''Mark Twain was contemporaneous with these gentlemen, but his exercising was confined to studying up jokes to play on his fellow members,'' an excerpt from the 1893 club history book recounts about Twain's time there in the 1860s.

While it's unclear exactly what his mischiefs included, a letter Twain wrote back home suggest Olympic eventually tamed the great American novelist.

''I feel like a new man,'' Twain wrote, thanking his ''Ma'' for pushing him into sports. ''I sleep better, I have a healthier appetite, my intellect is leaner, and I have become so strong and hearty that I fully believe twenty years have been added to my life.''

Not everyone left happy.

Cobb, a hot-tempered and aggressive slugger who received the most votes on the original Hall of Fame ballot, played 12-year-old Bob Rosburg in the first club championship in 1939. Although Cobb had retired from baseball more than a decade earlier, his competitiveness never cooled.

Cobb lost 7 and 6. Rosburg later won the PGA Championship in 1959. And while popular lore is that Cobb resigned in furor, the club has no record that he gave up his membership. Rosburg told Golf Digest in 2010 that Cobb was gracious in defeat but ''guys at the club rode him unmercifully for losing to a child. He disappeared and didn't come back to Olympic for years.''

''He was just so embarrassed,'' Olympic general chairman Stephen Meeker said of Cobb, recalling the story.

Johnny Miller also caddied at Olympic and won so many junior tournaments in the Bay Area that members wanted him to play with their sons. So the 12-year-old Miller became the club's first merit member - a kid who could be a junior member without his father belonging - at $7 a month.

''That was a huge break for me,'' said Miller, NBC's lead analyst since 1990. ''When I went on tour, I thought everything was flat ground after playing the mountain, super-tough course Olympic Club was.''

While several renovations have been done to the original design by Scottish architect Willie Watson, conditions are as crazy as ever as Olympic prepares to host golf's national championship for the fifth time.

Perched just across the street from the Pacific Ocean, the northwest winds and famous fog that swallow San Francisco summers are often most majestic - and unpredictable - on the unleveled Lake Course, erected on the side of a hill south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The greens are tiny and the narrow, tree-lined fairways fast and fickle.

The damp air stalls shots. The rough is so thick that often the only way to find a ball is by standing directly over it. The elevation ranges from about 220 feet above sea level to only 30.

''It's like trying to level a tripod and hit a ball at the same time,'' Finlen said.

Depending on where you are on the course, the temperature could vary some 20 degrees - although more so in the foggier months of July and August - with the mix of sun and marine-layer fog.

''The old joke used to be the 15 minutes of sun we get every day would be the time when the fog rolls back out and rolls back in,'' Meeker said. ''It's not that far from the truth.''

The club is still a landing spot for some of San Francisco's top athletes.

Olympic competes in 19 sports. The best men's basketball team scrimmages Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, every year, and there are at least 300 members with a single-digit handicap.

In all, Olympic has about 5,000 voting members. The annual budget is a whopping $40 million, and the waiting list is eight to 10 years.

A favorite among members is the burger dog, started in the 1950s by Bill Parish, who served hamburgers and hot dogs from a food trailer outside the facility and didn't want to pay for both buns. The item became so popular the stand was invited into the grounds.

''You haven't experienced Olympic until you've had one of these,'' USGA executive director Mike Davis said while scarfing down a burger dog during a lunch break this week.

Even still, the food's not what keeps bringing the USGA back.

It's the history.

Besides the massive membership and rich tradition, Olympic is where Jack Fleck (1955), Billy Casper (1966), Scott Simpson (1987) and Lee Janzen (1998) were crowned in dramatic finishes.

The runners-up those years? Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart.

''Something magical always seems to happen at Olympic,'' Davis said, reciting a line he often attributes to former executive director Frank Hannigan. ''There is something magical about it.''


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