Welcome to the Graveyard of Golfing Greats.
The US Open championship returns to the Lake Course of Olympic Club in San Francisco this week. If past history repeats, look for one of the game’s best players to be overtaken in the trophy run by a rival of much lesser renown.
Olympics’ last Open, in 1998, featured Payne Stewart cruising to his third major championship and second Open win. He led at the end of each round, and had a four shot lead as he teed off on Sunday.
After three holes, Lee Janzen had fallen seven strokes behind. But he played the rest of his round bogey-free, added four birdies, caught Stewart on the 12th hole, and won by a single stroke.
The Olympic victim in 1987, Tom Watson, remains a great golfer by any standard. He won two Masters, a US Open, and five British Opens — and almost won a sixth three years ago at the tender age of 59.
At Olympic, he led by a stroke after three rounds, and by a stroke with five holes to play. He birdied 14, but Scott Simpson birdied 14, 15 and 16. Needing a birdie at 18 to tie Simpson, Watson hit a 45-foot putt that was dead center, but it stopped inches short.
That would be Simpson’s only victory in a major.
Arnold Palmer sought his first major win since the 1964 Masters when the Open visited Olympic in 1966. And it looked for all the world like he’d get it; he led Billy Casper by seven shots with only nine holes to play.
Then Palmer made a fatal mistake. "I let my attention wander from the realities —winning the tournament—to pursuing another goal: beating the US Open record of 276 shot by Ben Hogan in 1948," Palmer wrote in his autobiography, "Go For Broke!"
Palmer bogeyed five of the final nine holes. Casper made two birdies, finally drawing even on the 17th hole.
The Monday playoff proved anticlimactic. Casper shot a 69 to win his second Open. Palmer shot a 73 to lose his third Open playoff.
The initial Open at Olympic in 1955 provided the greatest upset in golf history.
Ben Hogan was still regarded as the world’s best golfer, despite playing in only three events that year. Just two years earlier, he had become the only person to win the Masters, US Open, and British Open in the same calendar year. He had won nine majors — still fourth on the all-time list — including four US Opens.
Hogan went about his business at Olympic with typical deliberate, surgical precision, shooting 72-73-72 to take a one-shot lead over Sam Snead and Julius Boros. He then shot a 70 in Saturday’s second round. So sure of victory was Hogan that he handed his ball to Joe Dey of the USGA, saying, "This is for Golf House," the USGA museum.
Hogan then relaxed in the clubhouse, for in those days the leaders weren’t always in the final pairings. As events unfolded, the only player with a chance to catch him was a municipal club pro from Davenport, Iowa.
"Is Jack Fleck good enough to tie you?" Hogan was asked.
Hogan replied, "He must be good. He uses Hogan clubs!"
A few weeks earlier, during the Colonial tournament, Fleck had visited the Hogan factory. He explained that he and his wife had decided that this was a "do or die" season, and Fleck felt that a set of Hogan clubs might be the key to unlocking his game.
Impressed by Fleck’s moxie and determination, Hogan presented him with a new set of clubs. He even produced two new wedges, which he presented to Fleck at Olympic. They were the only two players in the field using Hogan clubs.
Flack had never won a Tour event, and as he left the 13th green, a marshal told him that he was one stroke behind Hogan. "I felt like the crowd was growing by 200, 300, 400 people per hole on the back nine," Fleck told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I had never been in a situation like that."
When he rolled in an eight foot, side-hill putt for birdie on 18, suddenly Mr. Unknown was in a playoff with Mr. Golf.
On their second playoff hole the next day, Fleck found the rough and a bunker. When he finally reached the green, he said to Hogan, "Sorry to keep you waiting." Hogan replied, "That’s O.K., we’ve got nothing else to do today."
As related to Al Berkow, Hogan always felt that he lost his intimidation factor right there. He also lost the match, shooting 72 to Fleck’s 69.
Fleck would only win two more tour events, but he always had his shining moment. "Listen, I beat Ben Hogan!" he told the Chronicle last month. "And I was Joe Nobody!"
"Hogan was my idol," Fleck, at 90 the oldest living Open champion, told the New York Times recently. "You know what my four-year-old son said? He said, ‘I rooted for you, Dad, but I was sorry Ben Hogan lost.’"