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A tale of two Opens

The story of golf at Olympic is a tale of two Opens – two of the very best U.S. Opens ever played.

In 1955 Ben Hogan, with 53 Tour wins, was still the major force in the game and  Olympic’s Lakeside Course appeared to be an ideal fit for his game as it required shaping shots on virtually every hole, Hogan’s forte as the game’s ultimate shotmaker.  But despite his age – Hogan was almost 43 – and the aftereffects of a horrific head-long crash with a bus in 1949 – Hogan was still the finest, most feared player in the game.  His ability to analyze a course, determine how to attack it and then practice the shots required was legendary.

This combination of swing mechanics and cerebral approach produced an incredible record, the best ever for a professional to this point. 

Consider since 1940 Hogan never finished out of the top 10 in the 11 U.S. Opens he played, winning five – including the “unofficial” war-time Open in 1942 which Hogan and his partisans considered his fifth Open win.  Without doubt, in the years after World War II, he won two Masters, two PGAs, one British Open and four “official” U.S. Opens.  And all this despite serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII and later being severely injured in the car wreck.

At 6,700 yards, the par-70 Lakeside Course (as the Lake Course was then widely referred to) was toughened up by Robert Trent Jones for the Open, much as he had done at Oakland Hills for the 1951 event.  Quite simply, San Francisco’s Open course was a brute, replete with copious quantities of 60- to 100-foot eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees lining the fairways of the course that Jones had lengthened by some 300 yards.   The considerable rough of perennial ryegrass grew to 8 inches in spots and proved more demanding than anyone realized.  And, to top it off, the rough was allowed to grow to the edges of the greens, thus making recovery shots problematic and the greens appear unusually small from the narrow fairways. 

But this tough, supremely demanding U.S. Open setup was right in Hogan’s wheelhouse, as it required – no, demanded  – hitting fairways and greens time and time and time again. 

Through the first two rounds, Hogan stayed around the lead, finally assuming control after 54 holes at 217, 7 over par.  It was a wonderful leaderboard, with Sam Snead and his mellifluous swing one stroke behind and Tommy Bolt and his terrible temper two strokes behind.  Then there was Jack Fleck, a little-known municipal course pro from Davenport, Iowa, three behind the leader at 220.

With an even-par 35 by Hogan on the first nine of the final round, it looked like a triumphant processional as he marched home in metronomic, Hogan-like fashion and an even-par round.  TV commentator Gene Sarazen, the first man to win the career Grand Slam as a professional, pronounced Hogan the winner of the Open as NBC went off the air with a few still out on the course.

As Hogan finished up on 18, word reached Fleck on the 14th hole that all he needed was one birdie and three pars to tie Hogan. 

Fleck quickly bogeyed 14. 

Now he needed two birdies and two pars to tie, a tall order over this tough course. 

Making a bird on 15, he still had hope. 

Parring 16 and 17, he still needed a birdie on the home hole to force a playoff. 

With a good drive on the short par-4 final hole to the uphill green, Fleck hit a knockdown 7-iron to 8 feet and canned the birdie putt to tie Hogan.  Playoff.

No one gave Fleck a dime’s chance to defeat Hogan.

As Bobby Jones feared, anything could happen in an 18-hole match.  And so it did.

In the Sunday playoff, Hogan fell three behind after 10 holes.  Playing steady, consistent golf, he was one behind upon reaching the 18th tee, but slipped on his tee shot.  The result: a ball in the deep left rough.  Fleck split the fairway, then hit a high 7-iron from 130 yards to 8 feet right of the hole. Hogan, mired in the deep rough, took five strokes to reach the green, making a 30-foot putt for a double-bogey 6 and a 72.  Fleck made his par and a 69, only the fourth below-par round in the entire championship.

On the strength of a hot putter, accurate driving and superb iron play, Jack Fleck had defeated the mighty Ben Hogan.

Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer

Similarly, the 1966 Open at Olympic proved equally as thrilling as 1955. 

Arnold Palmer, then at the height of his powers, came to the Lake Course seeking the big one he wanted above all else – a second national championship – so as to reestablish his dominance in the game, especially over the young upstart Jack Nicklaus.

With 47 PGA Tour wins since he had turned pro in 1955, including seven majors – four Masters, two British Opens and one U.S. Open – Palmer wanted this one badly to assuage his playoff defeats in the 1962 Open at Oakmont to Nicklaus and in the 1963 Open to Julius Boros at The Country Club.  In less than five years Nicklaus had established himself as Palmer’s chief rival, winning five majors and 21 Tour events, including a playoff win over Palmer in the 1962 Open for his first win as a professional.

As the Open neared, Palmer made an adjustment in his swing, changing from his lifelong right-to-left draw off the tee to a slight fade to meet the predominant left-to-right requirement of the Lake Course. 

Palmer went out on Thursday with a loose 38 on the first nine and came back in 33, good for a 71, four behind the first-round leader.  On Friday, Palmer shot 32-34–66 on the strength of five birdies and one bogey.  Billy Casper, recently slimmed down on a somewhat exotic diet of buffalo and bear meat and still one of the game’s best putters, shot a 1-under 69 in the first round and a 2-under 68 in the second to fall into a tie with Palmer. Playing together on Saturday, Palmer shot an even-par 70 as Casper fell behind by three with a 73.

Still the low two finishers through three rounds, Palmer and Casper were paired in the final tilt.  And what pyrotechnics they produced.

With a 32 on the front – six below his first nine in the opening round – Palmer was seven up on Casper, in second place and nine up on his young rival Nicklaus.  Seven strokes up with nine to play, Palmer thought he had the Open won and decided to go after Hogan’s 1948 Open scoring record of 276.  Besides, all he had to do was shoot a 1 over par of 36 on the final nine.  Simple, or so it seemed.

Palmer bogeyed the 10th as Casper parred. He came back to even par on the back with a birdie on the 12th, but Casper birdied as well.  Now six up on Casper with six to play, Palmer still had Hogan’s record in sight.  With a bogey-4 on the par-3 13th to Casper’s par, Palmer felt he was still safe and merely needed to par in to tie Hogan’s record. 

Both made par at the 14th.  From Palmer’s perspective, so far so good.

The 15th proved pivotal, as Palmer hit into the front bunker going for the pin on the 150-yard par 3, making 4 as Casper made birdie to cut Palmer’s lead to three with three to play.

Palmer woke up and decided to forget about the Hogan record and play what was essentially match play against Casper.

On the 16th, a big sweeping right-to-left par 5 then played at a whopping 604 yards, Palmer decided to go back to his original draw swing to follow the direction of the fairway. With a mighty Palmer-esque swing at his tee shot, his drive, rather than move gently from right to left, became a quick duck hook ending in the deep left rough.  A 3-iron sent the ball running across the fairway into even deeper rough on the right.  Now some 300 yards from the green, all Palmer could do was to wedge it back to the fairway.  From there he hit a mighty 3-wood into the front greenside bunker.  Although he was fortunate to make a bogey, Casper, continuing his superlative putting, birdied.

Palmer’s seemingly insurmountable lead of seven strokes on the 10th hole was now only one with two to play. 

Hooking his drive off the 17th, the toughest hole on the course, Palmer once again bogeyed as Casper parred.  

Incredibly, Casper had made up seven strokes in eight holes to tie Palmer.  Both parred the 18th, but Palmer had to make a difficult 6-footer for his par, as Casper two-putted for his.

Lost in all the talk of Palmer’s historic collapse was Casper’s superlative play over the back nine as he shot 32, never missing a fairway and missing only one green in regulation, the 17th.  But it was his putting that stood out in stark relief, as he took only 117 putts over the four rounds – an amazing 27 putts under a “regulation” two putts per hole – and never three-putted over the fast, subtly undulating Olympic greens.

The 18-hole playoff mirrored the fourth round as Palmer jumped to a two-stroke lead over the first nine holes.  On the 11th, Casper pulled even as he birdied and Palmer bogeyed.  Casper picked up another stroke on the par-3 13th with a 50-foot birdie putt and one more on 14 to take the lead for the first time as Palmer bogeyed.  Casper expanded his lead with a par on 15 as Palmer bogeyed.  Casper played the next three holes in 1 over par as Palmer played them in 2 over.  Casper won his second Open by four as he shot a 1-under-par 69 to Pamer’s 3-over 73.

Meanwhile, Ben Hogan – a special invitee to the 1966 Open – finished in 12th place.  He was 54 years old.  And the young Jack Nicklaus, on 291, finished third. 

In retrospect, for Jack Fleck and and Billy Casper it was the best of times as they won the biggest prize in the game.

But ultimately, for Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer it was the worst of times as they lost the one they wanted most, our national championship.

(With apologies to Charles Dickens)

Martin Davis is Golf Channel’s historian and the author or editor of some 25 books on golf.