The Lakes Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco
There is a unique situation going on towards the northwestern tip of the San Francisco coastline. There happen to be four golf courses all in the same area, all extremely acclaimed in their own rights.
The most well-known and prestigious of the bunch is the one closest to the water. It’s also the one we are here to talk about today.
It’s called the Olympic Club, and it is comprised of two 18-hole golf courses. The Ocean Course is beautiful, but it’s the Lakes Course that sticks out as one of the premier tracks not just in California but in the entire country.
How has Olympic’s Lake Course emerged as one of the top-ranked courses around? What big tournaments have been hosted there?
These are just a couple of the questions that we plan to tackle and answer in the following sections. We are going to start from the beginning, elaborating on the opening of Olympic Club, way before golf was even considered. We’ll then transition all the way into what the private golf club is like today.
Many of these high-end venues are so ultra-exclusive that the average golf fan never gets to learn anything about them, let alone step foot on the property and tee it up themselves.
If you have been wanting to learn about the 31st-ranked track in America according to the 2018 Golf Digest rankings, all you have to do is continue reading along!
The Olympic Club: Lakes Course – Key Facts
- San Francisco, California
- Year Opened
- Owner/Operated by
- Course Designer
- Willie Watson, Sam Whiting (Robert Trent Jones renovations in 1953)
- 71 (70 during the 2012 U.S. Open)
- 7,170 (2006 U.S. Open yardage)
- Host to
- U.S. Open (1955, 1966, 1987, 1998, 2012), U.S. Amateur (1958, 1981, 2007), 2028 PGA Championship, 2032 Ryder Cup
- Official Website
The Oldest Athletic Club in the Nation
We understand that by landing on this particular page, chances are you are a golf fan at heart. We presume that many of you can appreciate the look and feel of an “old-school” golf club, as there just aren’t that many of them left in today’s society.
So, what if we told you that the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California, is the oldest withstanding athletic club in the United States? See, to get a full grasp of the origins, you actually have to dig deep into the past, well before people were playing golf at the Lakes Course.
The date was May 6th, 1860. The Olympic Club was initially established by the Nahl brothers as a place to train for gymnastics.
Charles and Arthur Nahl were wise beyond their years, as this slowly turned into a “gym membership” of sorts, if you will. Before long, city firefighters were coming to the Olympic Club to work on their fitness.
Recognizable faces such as Mark Twain and 6-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion James Corbett became members of the club, and more amenities started being added. Which takes us to the addition of the golf course.
Golf at the Olympic Club
Lakeside Golf Club was a new course opened in 1917, but unfortunately, it was struggling economically within the first year of its existence. That’s when the Olympic Club stepped in and acquired the land. The plan was to build two courses, which were constructed by Willie Watson, a course designer from Scotland.
The two tracks (Ocean and Lakes) were ready to go in 1924, only to be severely damaged by landslides shortly thereafter. This news was devastating at the time but may actually have proved to be a blessing in disguise.
The result of this catastrophe was assigning Sam Whiting the task of rebuilding the golf courses, which he did by 1927. The work done by Whiting remained essentially untouched for the next 25 or so years.
It wasn’t until 1953 that the course was finally “reinvented” in order to keep up with the changing technology.
With the 1955 U.S. Open on schedule to debut at the Lakes Course at Olympic Club for the first time, Robert Trent Jones was brought in to “toughen up” the golf course. This was mainly adding length to holes, although he did add a fairway bunker on the left side of the 6th hole.
If you follow golf course architecture, you’ll know that Robert Trent Jones has been called in on a number of occasions to “doctor up” golf courses in anticipation of a hosting major championship.
After amending places like Augusta National and Baltusrol’s Lower Course, the authorities at Olympic Club wanted him to provide his expertise to their Lakes Course.
We want to tell you more about the layout and describe the flagship holes, so let’s cut right to the chase. Let’s start moving towards a detailed description of what the Lakes Course is like.
The Layout of the Lakes Course
A great player can shoot 80 on this golf course without ever losing a single golf ball. It’s not a famous quote, but it ought to be.
Before we start talking about any specific holes at Olympic Club, we want to give you a broad idea of what playing the course is like. You probably have played courses that are wide-open off the tee, consisting of rolling fairways that fall off into some sort of desert landscape.
Good, but that won’t do you any good here because the Lakes Course is nothing like that.
We’re talking tree-lined fairways with a perfect blend of dogleg rights and dogleg lefts. It’s amazing how playing a course that borders the Pacific Ocean can sometimes feel like you are in the middle of a forest. Part of that is the gorgeous parcel of land that the course is constructed on.
The other part is the brilliance of the layout. The monumental vegetation seems positioned in a way that just enough sunlight can peek through the gaps and shine down on the grass.
A true thinking man’s golf course, those who are precise in their accuracy are the ones who get rewarded. Bombing the ball off the tee is always a plus, but if it’s going sideways, it’s going to be a long afternoon on the links.
Nowadays, golf has become a game where players are reaching for the big stick and smacking it out there as far as they can. While this is beneficial in plenty of places, it will likely get you in trouble at Olympic Club.
The premium most certainly lies within precision over distance, although a nice mixture of the two wouldn’t be the worst thing.
The par 71 course for members has been converted to a par 70 in each of the 5 U.S. Opens that have been contested here. The hole that was altered for the 2012 edition was the opening hole of the course. Right from the get-go, players get a taste of what’s to come for the remainder of the day.
The 1st Hole
Call it a par 4 or call it a par 5, it’s all trivial unless you hit quality golf shots the entire way up the hole. From the outset, it’s a gentle bend from left to right, promoting a fade for right-handed golfers.
Striping one down the middle on the 520+ yard hole is only “phase one” of the opening test, as there’s no let-up the whole way up. The area surrounding the putting surface is closely-mown and runs away from players, leaving those who miss the green with ever-so-delicate pitch shots.
If you were hoping to ease into the round with a forgiving hole, you might want to look for a different golf course. As challenging as the first hole is, the average golfer will find the next hole is even more demanding.
We’re going to illustrate the hole, but we want you to see it for yourself as well. Take a few seconds and check out the short clip below, showcasing the second hole at the Lakes Course in a neat flyover.
It might say 428 yards from the back tees on the scorecard, but you can go ahead and throw that number out the window.
The epitome of an uphill hole, the 2nd plays parallel to the first, except it faces the opposite direction. A little more than 260 yards from the tips, and the fairway starts pinching in.
Anything less than perfect is bound to find the sticky rough, and that means hitting the green in regulation isn’t that practical of a scenario. The green is harshly sloped from back to front, so missing this green long is a “no-no.” Those who do miss the green will likely be in one of the 6 beaches that closely guards the perimeter of the putting surface.
Making a 4 here is like stealing one. You’ll need all the insurance you can get because the first 6 holes at Olympic are as brutally difficult of an “opening 6” as you’ll encounter anywhere.
The third hole presents players with a 250-yard shot to tiny green that falls off into bunkers and tangled-up rough. The fourth hole calls for a right-to-left shaped shot off the tee, but the fairway slopes hard from left to right.
This classic theme at Olympic Club is one of the nuances that elevate it into the upper echelon of private golf clubs. The fifth hole is a nearly 500-yard par 4 that softly curls to the right.
Players can’t cut off too much of the corner thanks to the enormous trees that overhang the right side. The 6th is another mammoth-size par-4, again approaching the 500-yard mark.
Remember, folks – this golf course isn’t played at some crazy elevation where the ball is flying 340 through the air. This course generally plays soft and moist, due to the proximity to the Pacific Ocean breeze and mist. These first 6 holes are extraordinarily difficult.
The players who have survived the first 6 can finally breathe a sigh of relief when they get to the 7th tee. It’s the first true birdie opportunity of the round.
Depending on the hole location, the hole generally plays around 290 yards, which is more than reachable for the longer hitters.
Even for those who don’t pride themselves in ripping the cover off the ball, a well-placed long iron or fairway wood will leave just a flip-wedge into a two-tiered green.
Be very mindful of where the flag is before you play the hole, as it will affect the strategy you employ. Being on the wrong tier is almost a guaranteed 3-putt, so sometimes the prudent play off the tee is actually the one that’s most sensible.
Back-to-Back Par 5s
The entire back-nine at the Lakes Course is breathtaking, but the beauty can be fully realized during this final three-hole stretch.
Interestingly enough, the 16th and 17th holes at the Lakes Course are both par 5s, something that is fairly uncommon at any track, let alone a major championship venue.
One thing we should point out about the 16th hole is that unlike most reachable par 5s, don’t expect to see any eagle putts here. In fact, some players might not even reach the green in three. Just see what Bubba Watson had to say during the 2012 U.S. Open when asked about his thoughts on the treacherously designed par 5.
“You can’t reach that hole in two from the forward tee. I don’t know why it needs to be 670 yards with the deepest rough on the golf course. There’s going to be people that don’t get there in three because they hit it in the rough and the lie is bad.”
That should say all we have to say about the epically long 16th hole.
On the other hand, the guys who can stretch it out there will have no qualms about reaching the par-5 17th hole in two shots, but they’ll want to keep their drives down the left side to create the optimum angle in.
The fairway slopes so hard from left to right that drives anywhere but up the left side are almost guaranteed to tumble into the right rough.
There aren’t many out at the Lakes Course, but this will be one of the few chances to write a circle on the card.
The Final Hole
Believe it or not, the finishing hole at Olympic Club isn’t another 500-yard par 4 like you might expect. Remember earlier when we alluded to precision being the key to this golf course? Well, that motto shines ever so bright on the tee shot at 18.
Just 347 yards from the Championship tees, this is one of the best short par 4s you’ll ever come across. It’s narrow, and the second shot is uphill, facing back into the gorgeous clubhouse setting.
Accuracy is a must here because there is plenty of trouble lurking left and right. Those who position their tee balls at the base of the hill will be the ones most likely to have a makeable birdie putt on a green that is pronounced in an amphitheater-like setting.
It’s just an absolutely awesome way to finish your round.
U.S. Open History
Now that we have explained some of the golf course and you know the backstory for how it all got started, it’s time to segue into the five times the United States Golf Association (USGA) has held their National Championship for professional golfers at Olympic Club.
Each and every time the U.S. Open has been hosted at “Olympic,” it has been at the Lakes Course, and the track has played as a par 70. Take a look below to recap the highlights from each of those five instances.
The 1955 United States Open ended up being a marathon of a golf tournament. You can certainly say that Jack Fleck won the tournament, but he did so by basically just being the last man standing when the 72 holes were completed.
Scratch that, because after the four rounds had been completed, both Ben Hogan and Jack Fleck were knotted at seven-over-par, 287. This total seems high for a U.S. Open winner, but the Hawk and Jack Fleck were actually 5 strokes clear of the rest of the field that week.
Despite Hogan being the Hall of Fame and legendary player that he was, the playoff would belong to the former caddie-turned-professional-golfer from Bettendorf, Iowa. He used a steady formula of 13 pars, 3 birdies, and two bogies to card a 69 (-1) during the 18-hole playoff.
Hogan was even par playing the last but took 3 shots to escape some gnarly lies in the left rough. Moments later, Jack Fleck was the U.S. Open champ.
The $6,000 he took home that week for winning the golf tournament was a far cry from the $5 per week he had been earning working as an assistant pro at Des Moines Country Club a few years earlier.
While +7 wouldn’t hold up as the winning score in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club like it did 11 years prior, only two men were able to better the 285 (+5) total posted by a 26-year-old phenom named Jack Nicklaus.
They happened to be named Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper, and they finished at -2, a whopping 7 strokes ahead of the all the other participants. This tournament was Arnie’s to win, as the King held a monstrous 7-stroke lead with just 9 holes to play!
Arnold’s dramatic collapse in the 1966 U.S. Open has been well documented and has most definitely not been forgotten.
“It was a very sad day. I’m 94 now, so old and yet I remember every minute of it.”
These words came from Rita Douglas, the member of Olympic Club who hosted Palmer the week of the ’66 Open.
Palmer’s downfall over the final nine holes that day included leading Casper by 6 shots with just 6 holes to play.
That makes it even more unbelievable is that by the time the two reached the final hole, it was Arnold who was forced to get up and down for par just to force a playoff the next morning.
All seemed okay, as Palmer played the front-nine the next day in bogey-free two-under to take a 2-shot lead to the back. Once again, Arnie would succumb to the U.S. Open pressure, bogeying 12, 14, and 15, and double-bogeying the 16th.
Casper birdied 18 to shoot 69 and clip Palmer by 4, thus putting his name on the U.S. Open Trophy for the second time of his career.
For the third time in as many tries, a U.S. Open at Olympic Club would come down to a battle between two men. In 1987, the championship didn’t go into a playoff, but a pair of golfers had separated themselves from the pack for the final nine holes of the championship.
It was a David vs. Goliath of sorts, being that Scott Simpson was a 31-year-old guy from SoCal who had 3 PGA Tour victories under his belt. Meanwhile, the guy he had to stare down was Tom Watson. We don’t need to spend time listing all of Tom’s accolades, but it was pretty evident by 1987 that this man was going down as one of the all-time greats.
This is what makes the win at the 1987 U.S. Open for Scott Simpson even that much more impressive. Not only did he birdie 14-16 the last day and make two clutch pars on 17 and 18, but he did it while going toe-to-toe with one of the 10 best golfers who has ever lived.
If you are going to win 8 tournaments on the PGA Tour during your career, it sure would be nice if one of them was a U.S. Open. In the case of Minnesota-born Lee Janzen, he did one better. That’s right, 2 of Janzen’s 8 wins came at the U.S. Open when he won the 1993 and 1998 titles.
The latter came at the Lakes Course at Olympic Club, and he achieved it by shooting even par (280) over the four rounds. Lee actually trailed 54-hole leader Payne Stewart by 5 shots when the two men woke up on Sunday morning, but oh how things can change over the final 9 holes of a Major.
Janzen made no bogies over his final 15 holes, shooting a final-round 68. On the flip side, Payne uncharacteristically made 5 bogies over the same 15 holes and eventually came up one shot short of Janzen.
We should preface this by telling you that Rory McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open in stunning fashion, absolutely obliterating Congressional CC to the tune of 16-under-par and a total of 268.
Both of these figures shattered previous U.S. Open scoring marks, so if anything was for certain leading into the 2012 tournament, it was that the USGA was going to stiffen up the test.
It’s probably the reason why there was a field of 148 world-class players and fairly good weather, yet not one soul was able to able to shoot even par for the week, let alone get “into the red.”
The course was so tough that it proved to be one of the rare cases in which Tiger Woods actually seemed “visible” over the weekend of a major championship that he was leading.
After sharing the lead at the halfway point with David Toms and Jim Furyk, Woods slipped to a tie for 21st place after shooting 8 over par over the weekend.
Starting Sunday’s final round 4 shots off the pace, Webb Simpson used birdies on 6, 7, 8, and 10 before parring his final 8 holes to get into the clubhouse at +1, 281.
After waiting it out and watching golfers make bogey after bogey, it came down to needing to avoid a Graeme McDowell birdie on the 72nd hole, and the trophy would belong to Webb.
The Northern Irishman made a par to the delight of Simpson, and Webb was officially a United States Open champion.
A Few U.S. Amateurs
The first U.S. Open was such a success at the Lakes Course that the USGA decided to come back three years later and host a U.S. Amateur, the biggest and most admired tournament for non-professional golfers the country has to offer.
In fact, there have been three occasions on which this coveted championship has been played at Olympic Club. Take a quick glance below.
Charles “Bucket” Coe won the 1959 U.S. Amateur, defeating Tommy Aaron 5&4 in the finals. If you weren’t around when Coe was dominating the amateur ranks, then you unfortunately missed out on seeing one of the most decorated amateur golfers of all time. His victory at Olympic Club in ’58 was actually his second time winning the Havemeyer Trophy.
The next year, in 1959, he lost in the finals to Jack Nicklaus in his attempt at a third triumph.
The tall and skinny fellow from Oklahoma is known for owning just about every amateur record at the Masters, but it was his play at the Lakes Course during the week of the 1959 U.S. Am that “Bucket” remarked was possibly the greatest golf he ever played.
This was a special week for many reasons. For Nathaniel Crosby, this was his “coming out party” to the world. Just shy of his 20th birthday at the time, Crosby had been known his entire life simply as “Bing’s son,” referring to his father, Bing Crosby, the uber-famous actor/singer who passed away in 1977.
Having lived in the shadow of his father and starred on TV shows with his family, this golf tournament in San Francisco in 1981 was Nathaniel’s way of showing that he was a lot more than just a sidekick on television.
Although a solid player, Crosby certainly didn’t enter the tournament as a favorite on anybody’s list.
Despite being overlooked as a “real contender,” the former Miami Hurricane golfer plotted his way through the rain-soaked layout that presented challenges for everyone in the field. Down 4 holes with only 10 to play in the finals against Brian Linley, Nathaniel rallied his way into squaring the match and sending it to sudden death.
On that first hole of the playoff, perhaps his father was looking down on him because Crosby drained a putt from off the green to complete destiny.
In spite of his only previous win in a golf tournament coming in a club championship four years earlier, Nathaniel Crosby was a U.S. Amateur champ, and he was going to the Masters.
How’s this for a good summer on the links: winning three USGA titles in a three-month span to join Bobby Jones (1930) and Jay Sigel (1983) as the only men who can claim such a feat. Looking back at the accomplishments of Colt Knost during the summer of 2007, it’s pretty incredible to think about.
Shortly after completing his collegiate career at SMU, Colt got the party started by winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
Just a few weeks later at the U.S. Am at Olympic Club, Knost took down former top-ranked college player Michael Thompson 6&4 to solidify his place in the record books.
The cherry on top was being a member of the victorious 2007 Walker Cup team at Royal County Down in Ireland just 2 weeks later. Colt’s 2-0-2 record that week capped off a truly remarkable run.
His win at the 2007 U.S. Amateur in July at the Lakes Course didn’t come easy, as he had to overcome the likes of Nick Taylor and Jhonattan Vegas (current PGA Tour players) en route to winning the title.
The 35th seed in the match-play tree never wavered and was able to persevere through the hardships of the week. Birdies on the 31st and 32nd holes in the final match were enough to stay ahead for good and capture the hardware.
Future Events at Olympic Club
We have covered the most acclaimed USGA events that have been played on the sacred grounds of the Olympic Club. For those of you who were too young to remember or potentially not even born when these events were taking place, all is not lost.
If you are a San Francisco local and want the chance to see the best players on the planet competing on the biggest and brightest stage in golf, you’ll have that opportunity; it just will be a few years down the road.
Who will be brought in to make amendments remains to be seen. But when it happens, we’ll make sure to update accordingly!
Right on the Pacific Coast
We uncovered the signature holes and told you how many big tournaments have been played there. Where it’s located on the map is just the icing on the cake.
If you like good weather and lots of attractions, San Francisco is a great place to visit. We told you about the three other championship venues situated in the same general area as Olympic Club, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to golf courses in the vicinity.
If you need a break from swinging the sticks or watching the pros play, the good news is that the list of things to do and see is endless. Alcatraz Island, the infamous prison that was in operation for nearly 30 years, receives more than one million visitors annually and is a can’t-miss stop for you and your party.
Of course, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf are also places of interest that are frequented by the majority of folks who come to the Bay area.
If you think you like seafood, try tasting fresh catch literally moments after it was caught from the water. You’ll have a newfound appreciation for the word “fresh.”
Bottom line – there’s a lot to experience if you are lucky enough to make it to the Olympic Club. Getting there physically isn’t the issue, as both the San Francisco and Oakland airports are nearby. Finding and knowing a member to get you onto the Lakes Course? That’s where “pulling some strings” can really come into play.
Remembering What We Covered
We hope you enjoyed our page devoted to the Lakes Course at the Olympic Club. Flooding you with an exhaustive section about the history of “Olympic” is our way of exemplifying how deeply rooted in history and tradition the place is.
Discussing how the course was designed and when and by whom it was renovated keeps you informed of what has transpired over the years. As far as the coolest feature or what is the best hole out there?
The magnificent layout just a few steps east of the San Francisco coastline is filled with one gorgeous golf hole after another. Singling out one is tough. It’s the reason that there have been 5 U.S. Opens and 3 U.S. Amateurs, and it’s the motive behind the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup following suit in coming years.
Start combining the superiority of the golf course with its location and all the history that’s embedded. You’ll quickly realize you’re talking about one of most exceptional courses not just in California or the west coast but anywhere in the country.