By MICHAEL K. BOHN — McClatchy-Tribune News Service. June 13, 2012
The U.S. Golf Association loves to select classic American golf courses to host its preeminent national championship, the U.S. Open. The names of these venerable courses roll off the keyboard like a Titleist on a slick green – Congressional, Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Winged Foot and Pinehurst No. 2, for example. This week, it’s the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Yet these lovely old Grande Dames, at least in their original, or even their 1980s form, have been challenged by the extraordinary technological improvement in golf balls and clubs. Improved player fitness and strength have added to the threat. Bubba, Dustin and even fortyish Phil can fly the doglegs and fairway bunkers on courses that stymied heritage players such as Snead, Hogan and Nelson in the age of balata and persimmon.
Host clubs and the USGA have relied on “Open Doctors” to lengthen and “Tiger-proof” the aging beauties. Rees Jones, long the preferred physician, had treated Congressional in the years leading up to last year’s Open at Congressional, as he had at Pinehurst No. 2 before the 2005 championship. Similarly, Tom Fazio tweaked Oakmont (2007) and Winged Foot (2006), and so on.
Olympic, on the other hand, has used another highly qualified golf course architect to prepare its Lake Course for this year’s U.S. Open – Bill Love. He has been at his craft for more than 30 years, and while his fellow architects and his clients hold him in high regard, he gets less news media attention than Rees Jones.
A past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Love runs a small firm in College Park, Md. He has gained the full confidence of Olympic Club members and the USGA staff.
Twenty-three charter members founded the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1860, and it remains America’s oldest athletic club. For generations, the club has offered venues and facilities for multiple sports, adding golf in 1918. Members bought Lakeside Golf Club, which was located about eight miles south of the Golden Gate near the ocean shoreline. After buying adjacent land, Olympic replaced the original Wilfred Reid golf course with two new 18-hole layouts. Designed by Willie Watson and built by greenkeeper Sam Whiting, the first Ocean and Lake Courses opened in 1924. Winter storms ruined the two courses in 1926, and Whiting redesigned them, with both re-opening in 1927.
The Lake Course has been the championship track at the club and has hosted four U.S. Opens before this year – 1955, 1966, 1987 and 1998. Virtually unchanged through the 1998 Open, the course became famous for its challenging topography that offered uneven, hillside lies for most approach shots.
The Lake gained another distinguishing characteristic through years – too many trees. Following the lead of other golf courses built in the 1920s, Olympic planted hundreds of trees in hopes of “beautifying” the grounds. By the 1990s, narrow tree-lined chutes dominated the Lake Course, obscuring views of the ocean, adjacent Lake Merced and even the next fairway.
Olympic members began planning multiple upgrades to the courses in 2003. The club talked to Bill Love and four other golf course architects about a master plan for their Ocean Course. Olympic selected Love, and immediately involved him in their tree problem.
“Many of the pines were dead or dying,” Love said in a recent interview in Maryland. “The members could not enjoy the wonderful topography of the layout. Also, we wanted to regain the historic feeling of the environment.”
By the time Olympic hosted the 2007 U.S. Amateur, the Lake Course had started to regain some of its original openness. Love and Pat Finlen, Olympic’s director of golf maintenance operations, have continued the tree removal process.
After the Amateur, the club asked Love to create a plan to upgrade the Lake’s greens, redesign the green complexes on four holes, add diversity to the par-3 holes, and add length to the course in a manner that would be respectful of its classic characteristics.
“Their goal at the time was to increase members’ golf experience, rather than just prepare for the U.S. Open in 2012,” Love explained. The necessary coordination with USGA came later.
When asked if changing a classic course added a bit of a risk to the project, Love said, “Yes, but one we could meet. We knew that our work had to blend well with the existing course and make the renovations indistinguishable from the original architecture.”
Concerning the lengthening of the course, Love said, “Almost all of the classic courses have been lengthened to mitigate advances in golf equipment. But length should be added where appropriate and should not take away from good shot-making.”
Love pointed to the fact that tour players can now outdrive the fairway hazards that challenged previous generations. “On the Lake Course, we wanted to bring the original landing areas for tee shots back into play. On many of the holes, that means today’s players must again be able to shape their drives into a slope that runs away from the direction of the dogleg. Numbers four and five are examples of that challenge, one that has been a part of Olympic’s history.”
Between 1927 and 2009, the Lake had “push-up greens,” a common feature on golf courses throughout the country. Construction crews pushed up a mound of soil and created a green. Many looked like upside-down saucers, while others sloped one way or another; each design permitted gravity to drain rainwater. For many years, USGA has promoted an alternative – sand-based greens with subsurface drainage.
As Olympic members considered green conversion, a concurrent issue influenced their decision-making process.
“The Lake Course’s poa annua greens were infested with nematodes, a harmful parasite,” explained Finlen in a phone interview. (Poa annua is the Latin name for annual Bluegrass and is a common fixture on West Coast greens.) “The bug was ruining the greens.”
“The nematode problem was just extreme,” said Love. “Pat knew something needed to be done, and he didn’t want it to butt up against the Open schedule.”
Also at hand was a club initiative to add challenge to the par-3′s, not only for the members, but also for the Open. “We felt that we should change three of those holes – numbers eight, 13 and 15,” said David Thompson in a recent interview. Thompson, an Olympic past president and current green committee chairman, explained that it wasn’t an easy process. “Anything we did, however, had to fit with the personality of the course.” The fourth par-3, the huge 247-yard third hole, needed no additional challenges.
Throughout the planning process for the proposed upgrades, Love gained everyone’s confidence. “Bill is a very good listener,” said Thompson. “We have a diverse group of golfers at Olympic, including 350 players with a handicap index of 5.1 or less. Bill listened to them and the higher handicap golfers, taking the time to understand the members’ desires. He also listened to Pat Finlen and USGA’s Mike Davis, who sets up the Open courses. Bill left his ego at the door and didn’t impose his own solutions. He just gets it.”
Love also reviewed old photographs of the golf course with Finlen to better design potential renovations than would to earlier architectural features. “We couldn’t go back to the original design,” Love said, explaining the difficulty in retrieving sufficient details from photos taken in the 1920s and 1930s. “But we were able to go back to the 1950s and 1960s and use those photographs as references.”
The club agreed with Love’s recommendations, and work commenced in 2008. Most notably, they completely changed the par-3 eighth, creating a more challenging, 200-yard hole. Love’s design fit easily into the Lake’s classic bones. “The hole looks like it has been there for ninety years,” said Thompson.
During the process of converting all of the greens to bent grass on a sand base, Love redesigned the contours of the number seven, 15 and 18 greens. For the other greens that were re-grassed only, the construction crew used a GPS device to map thousands of elevations points on each green in order to recreate the original contours.
On the finishing hole, Love corrected a previous fix that, um, had fallen flat. Through the last U.S. Open on the Lake, the 18th green was severely sloped and had limited pin locations. The late Payne Stewart complained that the green cost him the 1998 championship, which Lee Janzen won. The club soon flattened the surface and in doing so, discarded one of the course’s idiosyncratic features.
“I redesigned the green with two plateaus for pin locations, and reestablished a moderate slope,” Love explained. The change helps keep the course connected to its historic past.
Taken together, all the upgrades added 373 yards to the course, which now measures 7,170 yards and will play to a par of 70 for the championship.
With everything set and ready to go for the 112th U.S. Open, USGA executive director Mike Davis requested a last minute change. He asked Love and the club to install a temporary bunker about 50 yards short of the 17th green. The par-5 is a great risk and reward hole for those players attempting to make it in two shots. Davis discovered that if a player layed up, he had a nice level landing area near the right rough from which he could a hit a short wedge at the flag. The bunker denies a landing area for an easy third shot.
“That bunker has been there for only six weeks,” Thompson said, “but Bill Love made look as if it dated from the 1920s.”
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the Olympic members and Pat Finlen,” Love admitted. But my greatest pleasure came from helping to maintain the Lake Course’s beautiful routing on scenic topography. I think the essence of golf course design is to let golfers play the game across the existing landscape. That’s how golf began in Scotland.”
Love has the distinction of influencing two national championships in consecutive years. The USGA will stage the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at a Love-designed course, Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Virginia. A municipal golf course owned and operated by Fairfax County, Laurel Hill opened in 2005 on the grounds of the former Washington DC prison. Love designed a challenging course without disturbing much of the land. “I think the course looks as if it’s been there for years,” Love said with a chuckle, “but that’s what they said about the prisoners too.”
Nevertheless, Love should be credited for upgrading an historic private club, yet also providing a great golf course for public players.
“Olympic has a history of upsets in the four previous U.S. Opens the club has hosted,” reminded Jerry Potter, a long-time golf writer who retired last year from “USA Today.” “Jack Fleck started the trend in 1955 when he beat Ben Hogan, who was in the prime of his career. Billy Casper did the same in 1966, when he came from seven strokes down to edge out Palmer.”
Potter also points to Scott Simpson’s one-shot victory in 1987 over the favorite, Tom Watson. “In 1998, Payne Stewart led by four strokes after 54 holes,” Potter said, “but Lee Janzen came from five back to win.”
The oddsmakers, who have Tiger Woods at 11/2 to win the Open at Olympic this week, should pay more attention to history before establishing their betting lines.