Of the scores of historic photographs on display in the Lakeside clubhouse of The Olympic Club in San Francisco, there’s one that never fails to catch Dan Dillon’s eye.
It’s a black-and-white shot of Ben Hogan, playing the par-4 18th hole of the Lake Course in the 1955 United States Open. Hogan is dressed as dapperly as ever, but his drive has missed the fairway and he’s ankle-deep in rough, a dashing figure in dire straits.
To Dillon, a 20-year member of The Olympic Club and its current president, the photo serves as kind of time portal. It captures the past and portends the future: it shows Hogan on his way to an upset playoff loss to unheralded Jack Fleck.
In that regard, the image is also striking in its symbolism.
It reveals the club as a democratic venue, one that applauds greatness but plays no favorites, that welcomes giants and underdogs alike but is willing to cut either down to size.
“There’s always the sense that almost anything can happen here,” Dillon said. “And as it turns out, it very often does.”
The 1955 U.S. Open was the first of five National Opens staged at The Olympic Club, each of which delivered a measure of surprise. In 1966, the Lake Course was the backdrop for Billy Casper’s stunning comeback against Arnold Palmer. In 1987, it served as the stage for Scott Simpson’s steely win over Tom Watson. In 1998, Lee Janzen overcame a seven-stroke deficit early in the final round to edge Payne Stewart. And in 2012, Webb Simpson scratched out a one-stroke victory, with two U.S. Open champions – Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell – breathing down his neck.
Over the years, even as it has challenged the world’s top players, the club has gone to great lengths to grow the game. Major champions Bob Rosburg, Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller are among the notables who honed their skills as youngsters at The Olympic Club, fine-tuning their shot-making on the property’s small greens and sloped fairways.
“The Olympic Club really gave me my start and made me a complete player,” said Miller, who was given a membership as a teenager in 1963, the first beneficiary of a junior merit program that lives on at the club today. “It forced me to hit precision irons and shaped the way I played the game.”
Very few have played the game like Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion, but that’s not because The Olympic Club didn’t give them a chance. In addition to hosting major championships, the club has opened its doors to numerous competitions on a state, regional and national level. That includes multiple USGA qualifiers, including sectional qualifying for this year’s U.S. Senior Open on May 22.