Thursday, December 5, 2013
By TIM DAHLBERG The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO - The names are etched in golfing lore, just not on the U.S. Open trophies won at Olympic Club.
Hogan, Palmer, Watson, Stewart.
Had they won when they were supposed to -- won when they expected to -- the muscular course perched on a sand dune near the Pacific Ocean might be described in more reverential terms than it is today. Indeed, it might have one of the greatest collections of Open winners, had not fate intervened.
Instead, it's the graveyard of legends, a place where the hopes of the greats go to rest. The kind of place where Jack Fleck wins in 1955 playing Ben Hogan irons, when NBC was so sure Hogan would be the champion it went off the air after declaring him the winner.
The place where Arnie's Army was just as crushed as Palmer himself when he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine and eventually lost in a playoff to Billy Casper.
"You saw it happening in front of you, but it was just disbelief," said Art Spander, a Bay Area sports writer who covered the 1966 Open. "Arnie was The Man then, no one believed he could lose."
Tiger Woods shouldn't have even bothered coming here this week. History shows Olympic Club teases the greats, then sends them home exposed and suddenly very conscious of their vulnerability.
Hogan never won another major after losing here in 1955. Palmer would never win another, either.
Tom Watson never seemed the same after losing a one-shot lead with five holes to go in 1987, losing the Open to Scott Simpson when his putt on the final hole ended up two inches short. Watson had won eight majors by then, but would not get that close again until 22 years later when he made his magical run in the British Open at Turnberry at the age of 59.
It's not something in the thick San Francisco air, has nothing to do with the sloping fairways and awkward shots that test every club in the bag. There's really no explanation for the chain of events that gave the Open some unlikely -- and unexpected -- champions over the years at Olympic.
After Webb Simpson's victory Sunday, the winners of the five U.S. Opens at Olympic have a total of three other major championship titles between them. The runners-up own 28 major trophies.
The last to leave in disappointment before Sunday was the late Payne Stewart, who had a four-shot lead in 1998 going into the final round, his name ready to be engraved on the trophy. Lee Janzen rallied from five back to beat Stewart by a stroke, though Stewart would go on to win the Open the next year.
You can now add Open champions Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell to the list. Els came tantalizingly close to the lead Sunday, while McDowell had a putt to tie on the 18th hole that never came close.
The heartbreak that can be Olympic could be seen in the face of Furyk, who melted down when it mattered most on the final hole as Simpson got his name on the trophy.
Olympic has always been a puzzle waiting to be solved. Long before there was any thought of major championships being contested here, a 12-year-old named Bob Rosburg beat former baseball great Ty Cobb in the first club championship in 1939. The facts may be in dispute, but popular lore is that Cobb resigned in disgust for losing to a child and didn't return to Olympic for years.
When the Open finally did arrive in 1955, Hogan appeared well on his way to a record-setting fifth Open title when he closed with a 70. NBC was so confident that it proclaimed him the winner, and switched to other programming.
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