TORONTO - “Hold a U.S. Open at Olympic, and the wrong guy will win it every time.” — Hall of Fame golf writer Dan Jenkins
Like many golf stories, this one starts with Ben Hogan.
Heading into the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco, Hogan had won eight of the previous 14 majors he had teed it up in. He was gunning for an unprecedented fifth U.S. Open title.
If you were watching the tournament on TV, you would think that Hogan had, in fact, pulled it off.
But you would be wrong.
After Hogan tapped in for 70 and a tournament total of 287, NBC declared him the winner and ended their broadcast. Problem was, a little-known club pro named Jack Fleck was still on the course and still in contention.
Months earlier, a struggling Fleck had contacted his golf hero Hogan and asked about acquiring a set of Ben Hogan clubs. Fleck later arrived at the Hogan company and was greeted by the man himself. He left with a brand new set of clubs, free of charge.
As it turned out, Fleck was the only man in the U.S. Open field other than Hogan to be playing with Ben Hogan clubs.
With NBC signed off and Hogan in the locker room, Fleck was two shots back as he teed off on the 15th hole.
The club pro from Iowa made birdie on the 15th and followed it with an eight-foot birdie on the final hole, which meant the man nobody had heard of had called off Hogan’s victory party.
There would be an 18-hole playoff the next day.
That was the last thing that Hogan wanted. After the infamous 1949 car accident that nearly claimed Hogan’s life, The Hawk had great difficulty walking 72-hole tournaments.
The U.S. Open, at the time, played rounds three and four on Saturday, so Hogan had just walked 36-holes and now had another 18 to look forward to.
“Son of a bitch,” Hogan is quoted as saying in the locker room after Fleck’s birdie on 18 in James Dodson’s seminal biography Ben Hogan: The American Life. “I was wishing he’d either make a two or a four. I was wishing it was over — all over.”
But it wasn’t. And for Hogan, the unprecedented fifth U.S. Open wasn’t to be.
Hogan fell behind early during the playoff before mounting a back-nine charge. He arrived at the 18th hole trailing Fleck by one shot. To the shock of everyone at Olympic Club, Hogan yanked his drive dead left into the thick rough. His foot had slipped on the tee deck and the tournament had slipped away with it. He made a double-bogey six on the final hole and Jack Fleck had pulled off what still stands as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Hogan would never win another major.
The second time the U.S. Open was held at Olympic Club was 1966 and Arnold Palmer entered the final round with a three-shot lead over Billy Casper.
Palmer had stretched his lead to seven strokes by the time the pair made the turn. Not only did the tournament appear to be in the bag, Palmer had the tournament scoring record in his sights.
Then it happened … again.
Palmer bogeyed holes 10, 13, 15, 16 and 17 and his lead was gone. On 18, Palmer managed to get up and down from the greenside rough to save par and force a playoff.
In the 18-hole playoff, Palmer took a lead into the back nine. The King was two shots clear of Casper when they made the turn. He then bogeyed 11, 14, 15 and double-bogeyed 16. Casper had pulled off another upset at Olympic Club.
Palmer would never win another major.
HOW ABOUT WATSON?
The third time the U.S. Open was held at Olympic Club was 1987 and this time it was Tom Watson who entered the final round with a one-shot lead.
Watson bogeyed three of his first five holes and it seemed the Olympic Club curse was in full effect. But birdies on holes eight and nine gave Watson a one-shot lead over Scott Simpson as they headed to the back nine.
As if that was possibly enough.Simpson birdied holes 14, 15 and 16 to edge past Watson and win by one stroke.
Was there ever any doubt?
Watson would never win another major.
The last time the U.S. Open was at Olympic Club was 1998 and Payne Stewart had a four-shot lead heading into the final round.
Known for his great ball-striking, Stewart was a good bet for the tough, tight course.
Stewart stretched his final-round lead to seven shots before a charge by ’93 U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen erased his giant gap and forced Stewart into Olympic’s long line of unlikely losers.
Janzen shot 68 on Sunday to beat Stewart by one shot.
Maybe the golf gods saw tragedy on the horizon because, unlike those before him, Stewart would go on to win another major — his historic U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst — the following year before dying in a plane accident months later.
2012 U.S. OPEN
That brings us to this week.
The U.S. Open is back at Olympic Club and someone will be making golf history.
If you see Tiger or Phil standing on the first tee on Sunday with a big lead, remember all that has happened here before.
Remember the reason Olympic is called golf’s “Graveyard of Champions.”