After all the hype of the past few months, I finally made it to 1K. Yes, I reached the milestone of 1,000 different courses played on July 17, 2018. I always like to do something special whenever I reach every 100th course (and a few of the 50s, as well). Of course, I wanted to do something extra special for number 1,000.
It wasn’t necessarily easy and it has been stressing me out for months because I didn’t really have anything solid lined up. As planning for this particular Northern California trip went on, I knew I was going to be sitting at number 999 as of Monday the 16th. After that, I had no clue when or where the 1,000th would be.
I certainly could have paid a lot of money to take a big trip somewhere out of state or out of the country. Another friend of mine just played St. Andrews for his 1,000th, and I have to admit I was rather jealous of that. Unfortunately, that kind of trip just wasn’t in my budget this year and I had to think closer to home. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized I wanted this special round to be at a course in my home state of California.
I’ve lived in California my entire life and I’ve played courses all over the state. In fact, more than 750 of the courses on my total list played are in California. Someday, I hope I can say I’ve at least played every public course in the state, along with as many private clubs as I can get onto. As much as I’ve already played, there is no shortage of top-ranked courses here (almost all private) that I haven’t had the opportunity to play yet.
I reached out to every connection I knew and posted all sorts of desperate requests on this blog and on my social media pages. I sent emails to the Head Pros, GMs and/or Directors of Golf at a handful of the top private clubs left on my list. I got a solid “no” from places like LACC, Riviera and Monterey Peninsula. I got no responses from SFGC, Meadow Club, Bel-Air and Martis Camp. I also did not receive a response from The Olympic Club.
Fortunately, a series of serendipitous events took place and one thing ultimately led to another just a few weeks ago. I was able to make a connection with a member at The Olympic Club who was generous enough to sponsor me for my special round. Given I would already be up in the Bay Area for this particular trip, it made sense to try and schedule this round as part of it. Unfortunately, my host was unable to play on the desired date, but he was able to arrange for another member to volunteer to host me on the date I wanted to play. The club is obviously very stingy when it comes to any non-member or non-reciprocal play, and I can’t blame them.
I was able to bring a friend along for the journey and we played with a member who has been part of the club since 1974. He had another guest playing with him, and it was also his first time at Olympic. He was a gracious host, telling us all about the course and its evolution(s) over the years.
Obviously, The Olympic Club has a long and storied history. On this property originally sat Lakeside Golf Club. That course was struggling when The Olympic Club assumed control of it in 1918. Soon after, they decided the club needed something more grand. They expanded the property, leveled the old 18-hole course and built two new championship 18-hole courses (Lake and Ocean). Much later on, they added the 9-hole par-3 Cliffs Course designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish.
The Lake Course was designed by Willie Watson and built by Sam Whiting, opening in 1924. It has since been home to five U.S. Opens and has hosted countless other major golf events. It is slated to host its first-ever U.S. Women’s Open in 2021.
Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was brought prior to the club’s first U.S. Open in 1955 to make some renovations per the USGA. That included adding the only fairway bunker on the entire course, which is on the 6th hole. Bill Love oversaw another renovation in 2009 in advance of the 2012 U.S. Open. The most notable alteration was the creation of what is now the par-3 8th hole with kind of a natural amphitheater design underneath the massive clubhouse. More recently, the course went through an extensive bunker renovation.
The layout has definitely evolved some in the past 100 years. This also includes losing a lot of trees. Our host explained that most of the cypress trees that were originally planted had only 80-100 year lifespans, so things have thinned out quite a bit over time as they die off. It sounds like there used to be a lot more trees and even more narrow corridors framing each hole. It’s hard to imagine the course being much tougher than it is now.
It was a busy day out there, but we really never pushed anyone in front and nobody pushed hard from behind. We teed off around 9:20 and were done about four hours later. We opted to walk (using pull carts) to get a more authentic feel of the course, though this place sure is a workout. It is in San Francisco, so it is very hilly terrain. The dogs, calves and quads were sure barking by the end of the round! We did get a brief break after hole 10 (the turn here), where we scarfed down some of the famous burger dogs from Hot Dog Bills. This is one of the well-known traditions of The Olympic Club. It’s basically a burger cooked up and made to fit in a hot dog bun. It was pretty good, but I don’t know if it lived up to the hype for me. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, though, because I still need to get invited back to play Ocean and Cliffs someday!
As I mentioned, Lake is a very demanding course. It sounds like most members prefer playing Ocean a lot more often because it’s much less brutal. On paper, it doesn’t seem like it should be so difficult. There’s only one fairway bunker on the course. There are many less trees than there used to be. There are no water hazards and only a few holes where OB comes into play. You aren’t likely to lose any balls here (unless they have the rough ready for a big tournament) or rack up penalty strokes of any kind.
Yet, this course is a beast from 1-18. There are only three par-5s, so that skews the total yardage some. Two of the par-5s (1st and 17th) are fairly gettable. The other one, well, not so much. The 16th stretches out to 609 yards from the tips (579 blues, 562 whites). It is a big sweeping dogleg right and it just seems to go on forever.
Most of the greens at Olympic are elevated and very well-protected by deep bunkers and false fronts. You aren’t going to be running many balls up onto these greens, yet you really don’t want to be above the hole if you fly it too far. Also, the fairway turf and rough is pretty soft. You are right by the ocean and blue skies are a rarity (especially mid-summer in this part of San Francisco), so everything stays quite green and moist. Drives don’t provide a ton of roll-out.
There are some doglegs and trees that can easily come into play, yet I would say the drives (at least from the “forward” white tees – 6,280 yards, 72.3/131) never feel too tight. However, the fairway cuts are rather narrow, and there are many severe side slopes because most holes run back and forth along the hillside rather than anything straight up and down the natural slope of the property. In addition, the rough will definitely bring any rolling ball to a quick halt. There is a primary cut that’s not too tough to hit from and a secondary cut that is more punitive.
I felt like I was driving the ball OK, but I still found myself laying up more often than not. There are a few shorter holes that I should have played better, but every time I had a reasonable shot in I messed up the approach. Overall, I played conservatively with a goal to break 90, which I did with an 89 on the nose. I almost holed out my fourth shot (still from about 130 out) on the beefy 16th, and I burned the edge with my one and only birdie putt attempt of the day on the 18th. Almost drained a 30-footer, which sure would have been a fantastic way to end such a special round. Oh well.
My favorite holes on the course were the 7th and 18th, which are really the only two short par-4s out here. The 7th plays slightly uphill and then has one of the toughest greens on the course with a two-tier design. The 18th is a beautiful finisher with a tee shot over a hill. It dips down pretty far into the landing/roll-out area at the bottom and then you hit straight back up to a well-protected green with the clubhouse framing it from behind.
The Lake Course is not without its controversial moments, as well. There is a super-deep bunker guarding the 15th, which is the shortest of the par-3s. All three of us first-timers (including the other guest of the member we played with) found ourselves in that bunker and that amused our host to no end. I think we let him down a bit when all of us escaped in one shot. Sounds like the members hate that bunker and they find some satisfaction when others suffer in it.
Then, there is what they call the “Mike Davis bunker” on the 17th. In front of the green on the right, there used to just be two bunkers (which are nasty enough). I guess Mr. Davis of the USGA came in before the last U.S. Open and demanded they add a third, set behind the other two and further away from the green to give you that fun 40-yard sand shot if you dare find it.
As for conditions, the course was nearly immaculate all the way through. We probably couldn’t have asked for a better time to play because with the Pacific Coast Amateur tournament being hosted there this week. There were a few spots that were a bit too soft after the morning watering and some of the rough around the bunkers was a little bit spotty. Those were the only minor flaws I could find. Everything else was pretty much perfect. The greens were rolling super pure at medium/quick speeds. Speeds were so dependent on whether you were above or below the hole. Everything breaks toward Lake Merced (the lake, not the golf course).
With as busy as it was and the overall “private” vibe you get here, we knew there was no way we’d be able to play Ocean on our own after the Lake round was complete. Our host only had time for the one round, and I can’t thank him enough for volunteering to play with us. We were hoping they may be a little less stringent about the Cliffs course since we were already there and the pro shop staff was aware of my 1K achievement. Unfortunately, that was a hard “no” as well. It just gives me more desire to come back and play the other courses another time!
Beyond that, I don’t know what else to say about this experience. I’m so glad everything worked out the way it did and I got to play a truly top-shelf course for my 1,000th. I was looking up some rankings, just to validate its worthiness. Golf Magazine has it ranked #33 on their most recent “Best Courses in the U.S.” list and #67 on their worldwide ranking. Golf Digest has it at #31 on their U.S. list. Not too shabby!
Thank you to everyone who has followed my blog over the past seven years and kept me encouraged to play as much golf (and as many courses) as possible. I never had a specific goal to play 1,000 courses or any particular number, but it just kind of happened and I’m very proud of the accomplishment. I still have many more goals and adventures ahead of me, so there should be plenty more Golf Nomad activity to come. Stay tuned!
Some pictures from The Olympic Club (Lake Course) (7/17/18):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)