SERVING THE GAME
Open for All: Olympic Club Fosters Community Spirit April 28, 2017 By Josh Sens

The Olympic Club is dedicating to fostering competitive golf at all levels of the game. (Lachlan Cunningham/Drive, Chip & Putt Championship)

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. 

Johnny Miller became part of The Olympic Club's junior merit program in 1963, a year before he won the U.S. Junior Amateur. (USGA Archives)

In 2015, the club welcomed the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship, and in June, it will host the California Amateur. On Sept. 9, it will host the Drive, Chip & Putt regionals for the second time, with the winners, ages 7 through 15, advancing to the finals at Augusta National Golf Club.

The USGA also accepted the club’s invitation to host the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open, its first USGA women’s championship and 11th overall. That list also includes three U.S. Amateurs (1958, 1981, 2007) and the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur.

“The fact that the Lake Course can challenge every aspect of a player’s game makes it an incredible championship test,” said Mike Butz, the USGA’s senior managing director of Open Championships and Association Relations. “On top of that, there’s a built-in culture at the club that’s understanding and supportive of competitions. They know what it can mean to a community and what it takes to make an event successful.”

That sporting culture was there from the beginning, long before the club even had a golf course. Among the oldest athletic associations in the United States, The Olympic Club was established in downtown San Francisco in 1860 as a grooming ground for gymnasts.

By the early 1900s, it had gained a prominent role in amateur athletics, fielding teams in wrestling, boxing, baseball, fencing, tennis and more. Around the same time, the club became Olympian in more than name. It sent its first athletes to the Olympics in 1904 in St. Louis. In 1924, its contribution of 23 athletes to the Summer Games in Paris was the largest delegation dispatched from any athletic club in this country.

Golf was brought into the fold in 1918, when The Olympic Club purchased the struggling Lakeside Golf Club, on a sandy swatch of land along San Francisco’s western flank. By 1924, after additional acreage was acquired, the original course was plowed under and replaced by a pair of 18-hole designs, the Ocean and the Lake. A third course, the nine-hole, par-3 Cliffs layout, was constructed in 1994.

Though the club today is probably best known for its golf, its reach continues to extend firmly into other sports (four of its members, three swimmers and a track-and-field athlete, came home from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with seven total medals, five gold and two bronze). Its gaze, meanwhile, extends well beyond its boundaries.

“There’s an awareness that permeates the entire club that, while we are a private organization, we are also part of a larger community,” said general manager Pat Finlen. “We are committed to being a good citizen.”

So intent is the club on fulfilling that role that in 2016 it commissioned a Corporate Social Responsibility report, the first of its kind within the golf industry in North America. The recently released findings shed light on the club’s work toward environmental, social and economic sustainability. Among other evidence of progress: recycled water accounts for 89 percent of the club’s water use at its downtown and lakeside locations combined; on the golf courses alone, 97 percent of the water used is recycled.

The club plans to commission additional studies down the line.

“Whether it’s next year or the year after or the year after that, we want to have a clear idea of how we’re doing,” Finlen said. “More than that, we want to have an idea of how we can improve.”

Even as it prepares for the future, the club continues building on its past. More events are coming; the historical exhibits are bound to grow. Already, in the clubhouse, beside that striking photo of a rough-entangled Hogan, curated displays relay the story of each of the club’s five U.S. Opens. In a glass-enclosed case just outside one of the locker rooms, there is a tribute to the club’s unparalleled achievement in 1964, when three Olympic members (U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi; U.S. Junior Amateur champion Miller; and U.S. Senior Amateur champion William Higgins) held USGA titles simultaneously. That’s a lot of memorabilia.

Not to worry: there’s ample space on the walls and shelves for plenty of enduring memories to come.

Josh Sens is a California-based freelance writer.

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