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Olympic a classic venue

Drama abounded in four previous Opens

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 17, 2012
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SAN FRANCISCO - The winner of this weekend’s US Open at the Olympic Club will join a select foursome whose imprint on the tournament’s history has remained fresh and relevant because of how they overcame the odds.

US Opens have a tendency to play out that way, since the championship is a slog of 72 holes (sometimes more) that rewards the player who finishes first, not the one who starts fast. For whatever reason, the four previous US Opens held on the Lake Course have been taken by players who came from behind. None held the lead going into the final round, a nugget to keep in mind when Sunday’s play begins.

Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson, and Lee Janzen are names that carry a lot of weight in these parts, earning victories that most didn’t expect. They will welcome a new member to their club on Sunday (or Monday, if a playoff is required).

There was no greater underdog at the Olympic Club than Fleck, a 34-year-old rookie from Iowa playing on what would become the PGA Tour when he pulled off one of the US Open’s greatest upsets in 1955, beating Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff.

So sure was Hogan - and NBC, which had the broadcast - that when the network signed off, Hogan was declared the winner, with the unknown Fleck still on the course, two strokes down with four holes to play.

Hogan, already a four-time US Open winner, turned to Joe Dey, the US Golf Association’s executive director, and handed him the ball he had used. “This is for Golf House,’’ Hogan said, aware that a win would make him the only five-time champion, and figuring the keepsake should go to the museum.

Fleck, though, birdied No. 15, made pars at the 16th and 17th, then gave himself a 7-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to force a playoff. He made the putt, earning himself 18 holes with his idol - Fleck was even using Hogan clubs, the only other pro doing so at the time.

The playoff, a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many, turned on Fleck’s excellent putting, honed no doubt by all the practice he had put in on the Lake Course (he played 45 holes on the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before the tournament, and 36 on Wednesday). Fleck birdied No. 10 to push his lead to three, which was the final margin: Fleck 69, Hogan 72. “Joe Nobody’’ had done it.

“I was fortunate, and I’ve read a lot about it, that I out-Hoganed Hogan,’’ said Fleck, who has been here this week and, at 90, still plays golf. “I was fairly confident, very cool and calm. It was advantageous that I did get around to playing good in the playoff and did win.’’

Casper took advantage in 1966 of one of the greatest collapses in US Open history, when Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play. Paired with Palmer in the final round, Casper saw that he was two shots ahead of third place when they made the turn, and told Palmer that he’d like to finish second.

“I’ll try to do everything to help you,’’ Palmer replied.

Instead, Palmer’s poor play coming in - he shot 39 on the final nine - opened the door for Casper, who closed with a 32 to force an 18-hole playoff the next day. Once again the final nine was the difference. Palmer, in front by two shots with nine holes to play, stumbled down the stretch for the second straight day, and ended up shooting 73, losing to Casper by four.

In the years since, the ’66 US Open has been known for Palmer’s collapse - he never won another major - but Casper was no Fleck. He already had won a US Open, in 1959, would win the Masters in 1970, and finished his career with 51 PGA Tour wins.

“As we walked off the green on the last hole, he had congratulated me for winning the tournament and his head was hung,’’ said Casper, 80. “I put my arm around his shoulder and I said, ‘Arnold, I’m sorry.’ And truly, I was sorry.

“[But] you know, we play to win. And when you’re out there in the middle of the golf course, no matter who it is across from you, you want to beat them. If you don’t have that attitude, you’re never going to make it as a professional golfer. It didn’t make any difference whether it was Arnold Palmer.’’

The two most recent Olympic Opens can’t claim the same kind of drama, but don’t tell Simpson or Janzen that.

In 1987, Simpson was up against Tom Watson, who went to school at nearby Stanford, was the sentimental favorite, and was looking to win his second US Open. But Simpson, who trailed by one at the start of the final round, birdied three straight holes (Nos. 14-16) to win by one, his only major championship.

Janzen already had a US Open when he arrived here in 1998, having held off Payne Stewart five years earlier. Now the two were battling again, with two early bogeys in the final round dropping Janzen seven shots behind. But he played flawless golf from there, making four birdies and shooting 68, then watching Stewart’s putt at the 18th to tie just miss on the low side.

Four US Opens at the Olympic Club, four classics. It’s a high bar that has been set, but with big names near the lead and a course that’s playing tough and firm, Sunday should make for quite a final round. It’s what Olympic is known for, after all.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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