One of the most striking things about the Lakeside course at Olympic Country Club is that it is so enjoyable to play. This is true whether you are a pro or a 100 shooter. It is one of the most beautiful courses I know and one of the best.
I must have played Olympic at least 300 times in my life. I used to be a junior member there, and I won the club championship in 1952 and 1953. I was away in the Army when they held the 1955 Open at Olympic, and I suppose I have not played there more than a couple of times a year since I turned pro, but the course has not changed much in the meantime. Basically Olympic will be the same for this year's Open as it always is, except for narrower fairways bordered by typical U.S. Open rough and some new tees that will slightly lengthen 10 of the holes.
I would characterize Olympic as a second-shot golf course. By that I mean you have to play your second shots into the par-4 holes with intelligence and finesse. The greens are on the small side, averaging about 5,000 square feet or so. It takes a great deal of skill to put the ball on most of the par-4s in regulation figures. Yet once you are on the greens you will not be too far from any of the holes. As a result, the excellent putters will have no advantage here over the better shotmakers who do not putt so well.
Because I say Olympic is a second-shot course does not mean that you won't have to drive well. After all, this is the Open. The USGA never gives you a lot of fairway to shoot at, and the penalty for driving into the rough can be much more severe than at any other tournament we play on the tour. The premium is on accuracy from the tee rather than length.
On the preceding pages I have described some of the problems involved in playing what you can call "Quake Corner," the 2nd through the 5th holes. This is as difficult a series of holes as you will find anywhere, and if you start poorly here with a few bogeys—or worse—you will find yourself playing defensive golf the rest of the way. Defensive golf is usually losing golf.
Unfortunately for those who cannot attend the tournament, television will not be able to bring you the action in Quake Corner. It is rare to find a course where the essence of the matter is put to you so early in your round, but that is Olympic.
I will not attempt to describe every problem on the course for you, but you will get a good idea of Olympic's general character if I conduct you on a quick tour and indicate the high spots from the touring professional's point of view, excluding the 2nd through the 5th holes, since you have just had a colorful look at them.
The first hole is a 536-yard par-5 that heads north from the clubhouse. The prevailing wind from the Pacific Ocean usually comes up sharply around noon, blowing from left to right and a little into your face. In addition, the fairway slopes from left to right, slanting down toward Lake Merced, which borders Olympic on the east. In fact, the entire course leans toward the lake, giving nearly every hole a hillside flavor.
You might think the first hole would be ideal for a man who draws his shots from right to left—into the wind and against the slope of the fairway. Actually, the opposite is true. The shot to play off the first tee is a slight fade. The reason is that the fairway turns sharply to the right at the target area, where it is only 29 paces wide. So a shot that is drawn or hooked must start out over the rough on the right, fighting it all the way, and if it is hit too strongly or has too much action it will carry into the rough on the left.
Unless you drive the ball at least 300 yards over the corner of the right rough, there is no point in taking a wood and trying to reach the green in two. The shrubbery just off the left side of the green is unplayable, and there is a deep hollow filled with long grass on the right. It is best to hit a safe iron to the plateau in front of the green, pitch over the rough and bunkers at the entrance to the green and hope to get your birdie with one putt.
Now we move on to the 6th. If for no other reason, this hole is notable because it contains the one fairway bunker on the course. It should be an excellent hole for Nicklaus and Palmer and the other long drivers, since they can hit over the bunker on the fly, and on the other side of it the fairway curves slightly to the left. They had better be careful, though. There is a lot of rough on the far side of this trap. The perfect shot is over the right side of the trap with a slight draw. Between the edge of the bunker and the right rough the opening is only 25 yards wide, so the shorter hitters must drive with the utmost care. Since the hole measures 436 yards, the big drive will be rewarded by a medium iron to the green.
The 7th hole has to be considered the easiest par on the course, but it involves one of the most demanding tee shots. The trees almost meet at the front part of the tee, so you have to keep your drive low to avoid them, but you also must clear about 175 yards from the tee to the start of the fairway. After that, there is nothing to this uphill hole as long as you keep your drive out of the rough. The entire distance is only 285 yards, and the big hitters could drive the green were it not for the trees by the tee and the traps in front of the green. You can forget about anyone trying to drive it, however. So hit an accurate tee shot, then a little pitch shot over the bunkers and hope to one-putt for your bird.
The 8th (page 52) is another hole where you have to keep your tee shot away from overhanging branches in front of the tee, although these have been cut back considerably. The big hazard is now a tree on the right of the green that can easily catch your tee shot if you push it to the right. Otherwise, it is a fairly routine short par-3—only 138 yards—with a long, narrow green to shoot at. But you should know where the pin is before you hit. There are four great pin positions close to the surrounding traps, and because of the size of the green you may see quite a few balls in the traps here. It is a wonderful hole for the gallery, since thousands of people can sit on the hillside that slopes down from the clubhouse to the green.
The 9th hole is like the 2nd; the tee shot is moved from left to right. But the second shot here is one of the few at Olympic where you must definitely hit the ball from right to left in order to get it into the green properly. This green and the 17th are very fast. You need only tap the ball to move it from the back to the front of the green.
I disagree with the USGA's preparation of Olympic on only two holes—the first and the 10th. In both cases I think they have cut the fairway too far to the left and thus taken the trees on the right out of play. They may have had to do this to provide room for the gallery. The 10th hole is typical of the general nature of the course, for everything depends on your second shot. I think it should be skipped into the green, as on the 3rd hole. If you fly it in over the bunkers on either side and the ball doesn't hold the green, you are dead.
On the 11th hole the rough has been brought in to favor the fading shot. The hooker has to hit his drive over the rough in order to get any kind of position on the fairway. With the prevailing wind blowing, it is quite possible that just about everyone in the tournament is going to be hitting two woods to reach the green, even though the actual measurement of the hole is only 430 yards. When I was qualifying at Olympic for the 1953 Open, I experienced one of the oddest coincidences on this hole that I have ever heard of in golf. In the morning round I hit a drive and a one-iron to within four feet of the pin and sank the putt for a birdie 3. In the afternoon my drive landed right in the divot I had taken in the morning. I hit another one-iron to the same spot on the green where I had marked my ball in the morning. And again I sank the putt for a birdie.
The 12th used to be the toughest tee shot on the course, but two large trees on the left side of the fairway have been cut down, making the shot much easier for the player who likes to fade his drives. If you hit a decent drive you have only about a seven-iron into the wind to reach the green, but you had better put plenty of action on the ball, because this is the hardest green to hold on the entire course.
Now Lakeside turns for home, running parallel to Lake Merced and then upwind to the clubhouse. The 13th hole looks harmless enough—191 yards downwind. You have to hit a fairly long iron here—I'll probably take a three-iron—to get the ball through another of those chutes formed by overhanging branches and over a big bunker in front of the green. This is, by the way, one of only four holes on the course where the entrance to the green is completely shut off by a bunker. The problem here is simple—to carry the trap and then stay on the green. But this is not an easy green to hold with a long iron and the prevailing wind behind you. It is especially important to stay out of that bunker in front of the green. It has been rebuilt for the tournament, and there is a big overhanging lip at the front edge. Unless the USGA changes it, you could easily bury a ball in this lip and have an unplayable lie.
The 14th hole is a strong par-4. By cutting the fairway to the right on this crescent-shaped hole the USGA has taken the gully on the left somewhat out of play. Again you are forced to hit a long iron into a small green. The 15th, a mere 150 yards, is no more than a downwind seven-iron. There are good pin positions on the right behind some big bunkers because the green falls away from you, but I don't expect to see too many bogeys on this hole. The 16th is the longest hole on the course—604 yards—and you don't want to get in the rough or you'll be looking at a slick 6. The fairway just goes on and on around in a half circle. The USGA has not left much landing area here for the second shot, and it is easy to get where trees guarding the green could block your approach.
The two finishing holes are excellent. The 17th, playing a long 443 yards, is a converted par-5. Ben Hogan reached the green in two only one time during the entire week of the 1955 Open. There is now a new tee, 22 yards ahead of the one used in 1955, but the hole is still against the wind and uphill all the way. The fairway slopes to the right, so the tendency is to hit to the left, where you are fighting the rough. The best thing here is to keep your drive low against the wind and then take out a wood and hit your best left-to-right shot and hope you can reach the green. The hole will play much shorter in the morning than in the afternoon, when the prevailing wind comes up.
The 18th is a par-4 hole on which I have never used a driver, and I certainly won't start during the Open. Basically, the target area, on the fairway is to the right, but you want to be careful. The fairway slopes right, and if you get too far right the overhanging branches of some pine trees cut off your route to the green. Everything here depends on how you position your tee shot, because the hole is only 337 yards long. If you have any kind of drive at all it is a wedge shot against the wind to the elevated green. But you must stay out of the rough, for the green is hard to hold from a bad lie. It is very narrow—much of it only 25 feet wide or less—and is usually fast.
There is not a better hole for a gallery than the 18th. Thousands of people can sit and watch from the big natural amphitheater on the left and at the back of the green. It is a wonderful place to finish an Open, and a setting that enhances the tournament.
If I had to pick the kind of golfer who will win this Open, I would say he will be one who drives accurately—length is not an important factor—who hits his irons high and softly, so as to hold the small greens, and who is proficient at playing the wedge out of long grass around the greens.
The best way I can describe Olympic is as a Ben Hogan kind of golf course. I can think of nothing more exciting than to see Ben win here, where he came so close in 1955. Well, that isn't exactly true. I know one thing that would be personally more exciting—winning myself. I love Olympic. I know it well. And, most important of all, I feel it suits my game. So much for the analysis. It's time for the action.