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U.S. Open site Olympic Club: Home of some major-league major upsets

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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'Fans said I out-Hoganed Hogan,' says Iowa native Jack Fleck, now 91. (Getty Images)  
'Fans said I out-Hoganed Hogan,' says Iowa native Jack Fleck, now 91. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not just the stuff of course legend, but part of its actual, documented lore.

When the Olympic Club first hosted the U.S. Open in 1955, Ben Hogan sat in the locker room, slipping into his loafers, fairly certain that he had just won a record fifth national title.

Though a handful of players were still on the course, NBC had signed off the air, all but guaranteeing to viewers that Hogan had won the tournament. The legendary figure, at the height of his powers, handed out balls and gloves in the locker room as souvenirs. He even gave the ball he'd used on the final hole to a USGA official, to be put on display as a memento in Golf House, the organization's museum.

A slew of national writers gathered around the exhausted Hogan, who had just trudged 36 holes on his damaged legs, as the final players trickled in. Word made it back to the group that an obscure player from Iowa still had an outside chance to catch the Hawk and force a playoff.

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Time slowed to a crawl and the small talk ended. Hogan stared at his feet, his elbows on his knees, as the challenger played the 72nd hole, needing a birdie. Through the clay-colored walls of the venerable clubhouse, a roar not only could be heard, but felt, as unknown pro Jack Fleck holed an eight-footer on the 18th to force an 18-hole playoff the following day.

One reporter said: "It was just deafening. The building practically shook." Even at a place built a few hundred yards from the San Andreas Fault, the most famous earthquake zone in the world, the seismic activity at Olympic was only just beginning. In the four Opens the venerable Bay Area venue has hosted, there’s been a whole lot of shaking going on: Great players have always contended, yet a less-heralded man has left with the trophy.

Welcome to Underdog Alley -- where arguably the four most famous, talented or popular players of their era, all at the pinnacle of their careers, were felled by upstarts or players not held in the same sentimental regard.

"It's interesting how it always happens here," said 1966 champion Billy Casper, who was on the grounds Tuesday. "Really interesting. And I'm not sure why." There’s no rational explanation, really. No technical one, either. This falls squarely into the mystical category.

"One of my predecessors, Frank Hannigan, once said that something always magical happens when we have a U.S. Open here, and he's right," USGA executive director Mike Davis said.

Maybe it's the mist and fog, because the upsets have become almost predictable. Perhaps it's a leftover hippie vibe from Haight-Ashbury, when the disenfranchised youth took on the establishment. But the reality is, starting when David slew Goliath in 1955, the final result has become something of a certainty.

"Fans said I out-Hoganed Hogan," Fleck said Tuesday.

The lanky, conservative Iowan was quite the trend-setter, as it turned out. The moral to the story as the Open returns to the venue this week should be, at Olympic, don't bet the favorites. At least not to win.

Fleck's victory over Hogan is regarded in many circles as the greatest upset in the history of the game. No fewer than three books have been written about it, and the achievement is no less stunning all these years later.

Fleck, now 91 and at the tournament this week, had never won a tour event. More remarkably, Hogan was his idol. Indeed, there were two players in the 1955 field who were using Ben Hogan irons, the company namesake and Fleck. In fact, Hogan hand-delivered a set of freshly minted wedges to Fleck a few days before the event began.

Playing a half-dozen holes behind Hogan in the final round, Fleck made two clutch, late birdies, including the roof-rattler on the 72nd hole, to force the Sunday playoff. They played 36 holes on Saturday back then, and didn't pair the leaders, per se. Hogan had been done for more than an hour when Fleck finished off a stellar 3-under 67, matching the best round of the week.

Then he had to face the intimidating Hogan, a man he wanted to name his son after, before 20,000 fans who were rooting for one man. Gulp. Hogan had won three majors in 1953 and coming into the 1955 Open, had claimed four of the previous seven National Opens. Fleck holed so many putts, there's a famous photo of Hogan good-naturedly fanning Fleck's putter with his hat.

"He treated me like I was his long-lost son," Fleck recalled.

Fleck beat Hogan like a long-lost stepson, the first of three fairly memorable uprisings. Eleven years later, Casper pulled off the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history when he reeled in Arnold Palmer, who began the final nine holes with a seven-stroke lead. Casper shot 32 on the back nine at Olympic as the King, at the peak of his powers and popularity, chopped it around in the trees and shot 39. Casper won the playoff the following day.

Granted, it was only a minor upset, because Casper and the King were future Hall of Famers, and Casper won 52 tour events and three majors, but Palmer was the most adored man in the game at the time, though at Olympic, that changed rather abruptly as the underdog made his comeback. After a two-shot swing on the 15th hole, everything changed.

"I think it was the first time Arnold felt that he could lose it," Casper said. "And panic set in on him. He struggled the last three holes and it was an unbelievable experience. It's one I'll never forget.

"It was interesting to see how the gallery left Arnie's Army and became Casper Converts."

Palmer never won another major.

There were two more memorable upsets still in the Olympic pipeline. In 1987, Californian Scott Simpson held off Tom Watson, who by then had inherited the mantel from Jack Nicklaus as the game's most dominant player, to win by a stroke. Watson, a graduate of nearby Stanford, had watched as a skulled sand shot by Simpson hit a flagstick and dropped straight to the ground, inches from the cup.

"You look at what luck plays in there," Watson said last month.

Yep, kismet even wants the less-trumpeted troops to win at Olympic. The last time the course hosted the Open, in 1998, eventual winner Lee Janzen hit a shot into a tree on the fifth hole for an apparent lost ball. But it dropped to the ground as he was walking back to the tee box and he salvaged a miraculous par by chipping in from the greenside rough.

"Of course, you could argue that it was unlucky that it stayed up in the tree in the first place," Janzen said.

True, but when it fell, Janzen felt like he'd been handed a major-championship miracle. Meanwhile, Payne Stewart, a future three-time major winner, Hall of Famer and perhaps the most well-known and recognizable player of his time, hit a ball in the middle of the 12th fairway, only to find that it rolled into a divot on the 12th hole.

Just like with Casper, Janzen trailed by seven shots in the final round and rallied to win his second Open title, the biggest final-round Hail Marys in event history, both at the same venue.

Simpson, an underrated player whose steady game was well-suited to an Open, laughed when asked if there was something that had passed unnoticed about these Olympian-sized upsets. Maybe we have been looking at it from the wrong angle for six decades.

"You know, somebody once told me, it just proves that the top players in the game have played well there," Simpson said. "They always seem to be in contention. I hadn't thought about that, but it's true, isn't it?"

It's inarguable. The top thoroughbred always contends.

But at this place, the plodders find a way to win.

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