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‘Graveyard of Champions’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All anyone needs to know about the Olympic Club, the site of this week’s U.S. Open, is that three other Opens have been staged at the woodsy layout, the San Andreas fault spreads its finger underneath it and it’s the place where Jack Fleck won instead of Ben Hogan in 1955, Billy Casper won instead of Arnold Palmer in 1966 and Scott Simpson won instead of Tom Watson in 1987.

Clearly, Olympic is always ready to rumble.

Yes, we are talking about golf here and, yes, like in life, anything can happen. After all, train wrecks, bills and audits do.

Still, it remains that the big question when they tee it up Thursday for the first round of the 98th U.S. Open is if we’re talking about a trend at Olympic.

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Is this place haunted or what?

Look what happened to Hogan, Palmer and Watson. After losing at the Olympic, none of them won another major. You’ve got to hand it to the place. Olympic has earned its nickname: “Graveyard of Champions.”

There may be a better chance that a caddie will get lost in the rough than an actual representative of golf’s hierarchy will win the Open at Olympic. In these Olympic games, the golf course symbol could very well be interlocking rings. Only here, they’re handcuffs.

And so the Olympic Club enjoys a brief, but quirky, history as a hero-killer, where legends are unmade, dreams dashed and asterisks hang from the results like the Spanish moss that drapes the trees that hug the fairways.

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To appreciate a golf course, it’s a good idea to know a little something about the major championships that have been staged there. Consider this an Olympic Moment. All right, so there are three of them, but they’re sort of alike, so don’t get confused. Not for a moment. This place is confusing enough.

1955: Fleck the Fluke?

It should have been Hogan’s fifth Open title, a legendary golfer bagging yet another major championship in a legendary career. Hogan made par on the 72nd hole to finish at 287 and just about everybody at Olympic was as convinced he had won as was television announcer Gene Sarazen, who congratulated Hogan as NBC went off the air, announcing him as the winner.

Back at the 14th tee was Fleck, a 33-year-old municipal course pro from Davenport, Iowa, who was one shot behind, even if no one was paying attention.

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Why should anyone? Fleck had played 41 other tournaments and won a total of less than $7,500. What’s more, he hadn’t been able to break 80 in his practice rounds.

Fleck began his charge, oddly, with a bogey at No. 14 and there wasn’t a sound from his small gallery.

“I remember thinking, ‘Goodness sakes, they must think I’m all through,’ ” says Fleck, 75, who lives near Magazine, Ark.

He wasn’t. Fleck birdied the par-three 15th, made par on the next two holes and then, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, caught Hogan with a birdie on the 18th. Fleck hit a seven-iron for his second shot and the ball stopped seven feet from the hole, from where he rolled in the putt to catch Hogan and force a playoff the next day.

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It was predicted that Hogan vs. Fleck would be the greatest mismatch in U.S. Open history. It wasn’t. After 17 holes, Fleck led by a shot and made par. Hogan snap-hooked his drive into the rough, took three shots to get out and made double bogey.

Fleck made history. Unexpected history, but still history. Fleck says there is nothing fluky about his victory 42 years ago.

“There I was,” he says. “I beat Ben Hogan, and Snead was five shots back. Does that say anything?”

Can anyone else hear the word “Olympic?”

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One other quirky footnote: Fleck was breaking in a new set of clubs that week. The new Hogan signature series.

1966: The Gift

Has anyone blown a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play to lose a major championship?

Yes.

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Palmer managed to do it on the last day at Olympic, then was beaten in an 18-hole playoff to Billy Casper the next day and lost his chance for a second U.S. Open title.

The enormity of it all is almost overwhelming. At least Palmer managed to do it in spectacular fashion.

Casper told Palmer as they made the turn that he was hoping to finish second. Palmer understandably thought he had the Open in his pocket, so he turned his attention to beating Hogan’s 72-hole record score of 276. As it turned out, that was not a very good idea.

Palmer hooked his drive on No. 10 and made bogey. He got the shot back when he birdied No. 12, but the Olympic Club was closing in fast, its usual bad vibes bouncing off the trees and collecting inside Palmer’s cardigan sweater.

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Palmer bogeyed the 13th, then went for the flag at the par-three 15th to try to stay within sight of the record, but wound up in a bunker. After Casper made his second birdie on the back nine and Palmer missed his par putt, the lead was down to three with three holes left.

Palmer hooked his tee shot at the 16th and made bogey and Casper birdied. The lead was one.

At the 17th, Palmer made his fourth bogey on the back side, Casper made par and the lead was gone. In the playoff the next day, Palmer led by two shots at the turn, but bogeyed 11, 14, 15 and double-bogeyed 16. He shot 73 and lost to Casper by four strokes.

It was the third time Palmer lost an Open playoff. But his losses in 1962 and 1963 didn’t have the flair this one did, which Palmer points out:

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“Hell, I made a birdie on the 12th hole and I still lost seven shots. That’s pretty dramatic.”

It was Casper’s second U.S. Open victory--he also won in 1959--but this one was virtually gift-wrapped and hand-delivered by Palmer. Casper said it sort of fell into his lap, which was a lot smaller target since he had dropped about 50 pounds in two years.

“I felt a great feeling for him and what he had gone through,” Casper says. “I could really relate to [Nick] Faldo hugging [Greg] Norman at the Masters. Beating someone by a shot is not the same as being there when they kick it away.”

This time, Palmer was in punt formation and the field was the Olympic Club.

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1987: Watson’s Woes

At that point in his career, 31-year-old Scott Simpson was best known for rooming with Craig Stadler at USC, if you don’t count his three PGA Tour victories.

Simpson had missed the cut at the 1986 U.S. Open and probably was more of a threat to have his prematurely gray hair turn completely white before the tournament was over than to actually win it.

Besides, Jack Nicklaus was in contention, one shot out of the lead after two rounds, trailing Watson and Mark Wiebe. By then, there were few who didn’t realize the Olympic experience and how it crushed the big names, so the smart ones were curious to see how Nicklaus and Watson would falter.

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Nicklaus went first, shooting a 76 on Saturday and a 77 on Sunday. Watson went later, but it wasn’t his fault. Blame Simpson, who caught Watson on the 14th hole of the last round. Simpson birdied the 14th with a six-foot putt, knocked an eight-iron to 25 feet and made the putt on the 15th and birdied the 16th after he hit a nine-iron to 15 feet.

Simpson knew something special was up. He didn’t know it until then because he had refused to look at the scoreboard.

“I realized I was leading at that point,” he said.

Watson missed a 12-foot birdie putt at the 16th, Simpson saved par after hitting his second shot in a bunker at the 17th, where Watson made his own shaky par at the 17th. He needed to close with a birdie to catch Simpson, but his second-shot wedge came up short and spun back 35 feet from the hole. He missed the putt, but barely.

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After another unlikely hero held up the U.S. Open trophy at the Olympic Club, Watson said he should have hit nine-iron instead of wedge on the last hole. So why didn’t he? Maybe it was Olympic, whispering in his ear or maybe that was just a breeze blowing through the trees, stirring the leaves, turning the place a bit colder. That’s what happens this time of year.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* What: 98th U.S. Open.

* When: Thursday through Sunday.

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* Where: The Olympic Club, San Francisco.

* Course: Par 70, 6,797 yards.

* Defending Champion: Ernie Els.

* Field: 156 (153 pros, 3 amateurs).

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* Purse: $3 million (winner’s share is $535,000).

* TV Coverage: Thursday and Friday--noon-2 p.m. (Channel 4); 2-7:30 p.m. (ESPN); Saturday--2-6 p.m. (Channel 4); Sunday--11-5 p.m. (Channel 4).

* Playoff: If necessary, a playoff would take place on Monday and it would be 18 holes.


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