David would have felt at home against Goliath on the rolling terrain of The Olympic Club.
Giants don’t fare well there. They fall.
Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart were U.S. Open favorites who looked more like the fallen Philistine when the championship was over. They all got beat in upsets there on the outskirts of San Francisco.
Underdogs ought to be emboldened when the U.S. Open makes its fifth visit to Olympic June 14-17. History favors them.
Jack Fleck (pictured above with Hogan) knows better than anyone. He got it all started in 1955 when he improbably caught Hogan in the final round there and then beat Hogan head-to-head in an 18-hole playoff.
Fleck is 90 years old today, the oldest living U.S. Open champion, but he’s still going strong. He will return to Olympic to spend the week watching the U.S. Open. The U.S. Golf Association has a number of functions lined up for him.
“I’m as excited as I could possibly be,” Fleck told GolfChannel.com as he packed to make the trip from his home in Arkansas. “As you can imagine, I love that place.”
Fleck did not please a lot of golf fans when he denied Hogan his fifth U.S. Open title, but Fleck started a most unusual tradition making Olympic golf’s home for the underdog.
Hall of Fame writer Dan Jenkins dubbed it “The Graveyard of Champions.”
Jenkins didn’t like his beloved Hogan losing there.
“Of all the traditions in golf, the one at Olympic Club in San Francisco is the most annoying,” Jenkins once opined. “Hold a U.S. Open at Olympic, and the wrong guy will win it every time.”
While Billy Casper was hardly a David in 1966, but he upset a giant when he took down Palmer in an 18-hole playoff.
Scott Simpson fit the slingshotter’s role beating Watson by a stroke in ’87.
Lee Janzen came from behind to beat the favored Stewart down the stretch in ’98.
Fleck said he fell in love with Olympic while preparing so thoroughly on it in the days before the ’55 U.S. Open.
“Out on Tour, everybody in the locker rooms was telling me I shouldn’t play more than one practice round there,” Fleck said. “They told me it would make me gun-shy, because the fairways were so narrow, and the rough was so thick.”
Fleck didn’t listen. He arrived five days before the U.S. Open to scout and play.
He played at least 18 holes every day leading into the start and 36 holes the day before the championship began.
“I got to love that golf course,” Fleck said. “I could drive it on the carpet all day, and I liked that you had to think all the way around. I could drive the ball straight; I wasn’t a good putter, but I putted good for me at the U.S. Open.”
Not many fans knew who Fleck was back in ’55. He was an unproven former caddie from Iowa who had never won a PGA Tour event. Hogan knew him, though, and Hogan liked him. Fleck had written a letter to Hogan asking if he could have a set of Hogan Clubs made for him. To fellow pros’ surprise, Hogan answered back, and he delivered the clubs for free. Hogan was Fleck’s idol growing up, and they would become friends before facing off in San Francisco.
“Ben could be tough with people, but he always treated me well,” Fleck said.
Fleck would win just two more PGA Tour titles after the U.S. Open, claiming the Phoenix Open in 1960 and the Bakersfield Open in 1961.
“Winning at the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, it was the outstanding time of my life,” Fleck said.
Underdogs everywhere should revel in the championship’s return to Olympic.
Here’s a summary of how all those upsets played out.
1955: Fleck stuns the world
As NBC signed off early in the final round, Gene Sarazen told viewers that Hogan had won his unprecedented fifth U.S. Open title.
Fleck, though, was still on the course. Trailing Hogan by just a shot going to the 18th hole, Fleck carved a 7-iron to 8 feet and made the birdie putt, improbably forcing an 18-hole playoff. Fleck stunned the golf world shooting 69 in the playoff to Hogan’s 72.
It was quite the comeback for Fleck, who stumbled to a 76 in the first round and found himself nine shots off the lead. Fleck, however, had some special inspiration as he worked his way back into contention. He loved the singing of Mario Lanza so much, he packed his record player for the trip to San Francisco so he could listen to Lanza’s records. Fleck said Lanza’s singing soothed him.
While shaving in the morning before the final round, Fleck was listening to Lanza sing one of Fleck’s favorite songs, “I’ll Walk with God.” Fleck says he heard a voice come out of the mirror that day. He heard: “Jack, you are going to win the U.S. Open.”
Fleck didn’t doubt it.
1966: Casper’s comeback
Moving to the back nine in the final round, Casper trailed Arnold Palmer by seven shots.
That’s where Palmer started to collapse and Casper began his charge.
With a par at the 17th, Casper caught Palmer, who made bogey there. They both made par at the 18th to force an 18-hole playoff. Palmer had stumbled home with a 39 on the back nine while Casper rallied with a 32.
The script stayed on its theme in the playoff, with Palmer taking a two-shot lead on the front nine only to be outplayed on the back nine. Casper won the playoff with a 69 while Palmer shot 73.
Casper winning wasn’t a shocker, but Palmer’s collapse was. It was Casper’s second U.S. Open title. He also won the ’59 U.S. Open, and he would add the Masters in ’70 as his third and final major among his 51 PGA Tour titles.
1987: Simpson denies Watson
Tom Watson arrived for the U.S. Open winless in three years, without a major championship title in four, but some great vibes returned at Olympic. Watson played collegiately just down the road at Stanford. The stage seemed set for Watson as he grabbed sole possession of the 54-hole lead.
Simpson, a classic U.S. Open grinder who could follow the fairways-and-greens formula, spoiled Watson’s bid.
A shot behind going into Sunday, Simpson closed with a 68, beating Watson by a shot when Watson failed to birdie the 18th hole.
“There sure are some great names on here,” Simpson said, looking at the U.S. Open Trophy that Sunday. “It’s kind of hard to believe my name is going to be on there, too.”
1998: Janzen upsets his friend
Payne Stewart won the U.S. Open in ’91. He won the PGA Championship two years before that. With his stellar iron play, he seemed built to win majors at tight tracks like Olympic and that’s just what he looked like he was going to do after building a four-shot lead going into the final round.
Janzen wasn’t Jack Fleck. Janzen won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in ’93, topping the runner-up Stewart by two shots. Still, nobody was expecting Janzen to win at Olympic after he fell seven shots behind Stewart early in the final round.
At the fifth hole, Janzen looked like he had shot himself out of the championship with a tee shot into the cypress trees. His ball never came down, but this is where fate would blow his way. Walking back to the tee box to hit another drive, Janzen gained a reprieve when a gust of wind knocked his ball free, albeit in a terrible lie. Still, after chopping out and then missing the green with his approach, Janzen made a terrific par, chipping in from 30 feet. Momentum turned his way.
Janzen put his head down and began charging with birdies and pars. He intentionally avoided looking at leaderboards until he putted out for a 68 at the 72nd hole. That’s where he saw he was a shot ahead of Stewart, who still had two holes to play. Stewart, a neighbor to Janzen in Orlando, couldn’t make up the ground, though he would outplay Phil Mickelson to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst a year later. Stewart died in a plane crash four months after that.
Janzen joined Fleck, Casper and Simpson with his improbable victory.
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