The Olympic Club - San Francisco’s Historic Gem
Few clubs in America can rival the history and panache of San Francisco’s celebrated Olympic Club—and its golf is just a part of a very impressive whole. It is a civic institution and a reflection of one of America’s most beloved cities.
The Olympic Club was founded on May 6, 1869, as the San Francisco Olympic Club and with just 23 charter members. To say it was a low-key affair would be something of an understatement. The members would gather in the backyard of Arthur and Charles Christian Nahl for gymnastics as proscribed in the bylaws “to strengthen and improve the body by gymnastic exercises.” Today, more than 5,000 members enjoy far more than gymnastics—facilities include social activities that mercifully do more to elevate the spirit than tone the body.
As the club’s membership grew, the facilities expanded and improved and the membership process became more selective, although most of San Francisco’s movers, shakers and swells have been members at one time or another. It is worth noting that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was a member but when he aspired to a seat on the club’s ruling board, he was rejected.
Keeping in the club’s sporting tradition, the membership has included the likes of Philo Jacoby, the “Champion Rifle Shot of the World” in 1876, heavyweight boxing champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, and Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb, who is said to have quit the club after he lost to a young prodigy named Bob Rosburg in the club championship. Tyrus Raymond Cobb had an almost superhuman hatred of losing. Perhaps he should have sharpened his spikes before the round.
Read More: The History of the Ryder Cup
The Olympic Club opened its first downtown clubhouse in 1983. It was designed by the renowned architect Henry A. Schultze, but 13 years later it was destroyed in the earthquake and resulting inferno that savaged the city. The present clubhouse opened six years later and includes an annex.
If you are an athlete, it would be possible to have a very happy life in San Francisco without ever leaving the place, since it includes amenities like a fitness center, handball and squash courts, two basketball courts and two swimming pools, fitness centers of every sort, and hotel facilities.
In the early 1900s, Olympic offered rugby, basketball, soccer, water polo and lacrosse teams, as well as swimming and diving, wrestling, gymnastics, handball, baseball, football, fencing, tennis, boxing, bowling, and billiards. It hosted tournaments and competitions at every level from local to national, and in 1924, the club had 24 members who competed in the Olympics. That devotion to sports remains true today.
Golf at Olympic
In 1918, Olympic took over the Lakeside Golf Club and its Wilfred Reid-designed course. By 1922, the Club replaced that course with two 18-hole golf courses. Willie Watson designed and Superintendent Sam Whiting constructed the first Ocean (Pacific Links) and Lake courses in 1924. Due to storms during the winter of 1925-26, what we know today as the Lake and Ocean courses had to be re-designed by Sam Whiting and opened in 1927. In 1925, Olympic opened its golf course clubhouse designed by the architect who created the San Francisco City Hall, Arthur Brown. In 1936, Olympic opened its tennis facilities, which hosted the 1937 Davis Cup.
Over the years, several changes have been made to Olympic’s golf facilities. The Lake Course went through several major renovations to modernize and upgrade the layout. A new 9-hole par-3 Cliffs Course overlooking the Pacific Ocean was added in 1994. After several renovations, a new Ocean Course, designed by Tom Weiskopf, opened in 2000—two years after it last hosted a U.S. Open Championship. Olympic completed the latest Lake Course renovation in 2009, featuring a new 8th hole and bentgrass surfaces on all the greens.
The Legacy of Heroes
In advance of the 1955 U.S. Open, architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was commissioned to work his particular magic on the Lake Course. Compared to his work at Oakland Hills in 1951, he was relatively restrained. At the end of 72 holes, Ben Hogan—seeking his record fifth U.S. Open—was tied with a relative unknown, Jack Fleck, who was giving lessons at a driving range in Iowa at the time. Asked about Fleck, Hogan said, “He must be good. He plays Hogan clubs.”
As it turned out, he was just good enough to beat Hogan, 69-72. Go figure.
Olympic hosted its second Open in 1966 and through 63 holes it looked like a lock for Arnold Palmer to win his second Open. Halfway through the final round, Palmer was seven strokes up on his closest challenger, Billy Casper, the 1959 U.S. Open champion, and anything less than a victory seemed hallucinatory.
But in pursuit of Hogan’s 72-hole Open record of 276, Palmer went into his traditional attack mode—and paid the price. He wound up tied with Casper and in the next day’s playoff, Casper won by four strokes. Nothing against Casper, but there was heartbreak and disbelief from sea to shining sea.
In 1987, Tom Watson looked to be on his way to a second Open title but the Golf Gods smiled down upon Scott Simpson, who nicked Watson by a stroke. Then in 1998, Lee Janzen, the 1993 champion, beat Payne Stewart, the 1991 champion, by a stroke—the same margin he beat Stewart by five years earlier at Baltusrol.
In addition to the Open, The Olympic Club has also hosted the 2008 America’s Cup, the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur and four U.S. Amateurs—the 1981 amateur being particularly interesting.
It was won by 19-year-old Nathaniel Crosby, Bing’s son, who grew up in a suburb of San Francisco. Crosby was a fine player, to be sure, but in a year when the Walker Cup matches had been played the previous week at not-too-far-away Cypress Point, he was on very few observers’ lists of pre-championship favorites. He and Brian Lindley had a great match in the 36-hole final but there was something spooky about the day.
“I was walking in the rough on the seventh hole in the afternoon 18 and I stepped on something hard,” recalled Bob Rosburg, who was reporting for ABC Sports. “I looked down and there was a pipe just like the ones that Bing used to have. I kind of thought, ‘Geez, it’s kind of like Bing is here someplace.’”
Nathaniel went on to win on the first hole of their sudden-death playoff.
Welcome to The Olympic Club.