The Olympic Club was founded in 1860 and it is the oldest athletics club in America. After the Great War, the sporting Olympic Club decided to get into golf and purchased the Lakeside course from the financially struggling Lakeside Country Club.
The course had been built on the landward side of a barren strip of hillside, which separates the Pacific Ocean from Lake Merced, the largest freshwater lake in the San Francisco area (hence the name of the course). Set on the seaward side of the hill is the Ocean course, which also belongs to the Olympic Club.
Trees are the predominant feature of the Lake course (in distinct contrast to the Ocean course) but they were planted after the acquisition to add definition to the desolate sloping topography. Despite its name, there is not a single water hazard on the Lake course – and there’s only a single fairway bunker on the entire course. You can’t lose a ball unless you get it stuck in a tree and, according to Olympic legend, three branches were once lopped from a tree and 150 balls fell out. You have been warned!
Host to five US Opens, the Lake course is a serious challenge. Take your stabilisers and expect few level lies on these sloping fairways. Don’t expect too much respite once you reach the sanctuary of the small greens either, because most of the putting surfaces seem to present you with permanent downhill putts. What’s more, the greens are lightning fast and if you miss with you approach shot you’ll be in the vicious rough.
It’s not that easy to get a game here, so we recommend that you befriend and member at your earliest opportunity. The Lake course, which is no longer visibly beside the lake, is a daunting experience.
In November 2017 the PGA of America announced that the Olympic Club will host the 2028 PGA Championship and the 2032 Ryder Cup. It will be the first time the Lake course has hosted either event.
Let me just say right out of the starting gate that Olympic Club for me is nowhere near my personal world top 100. Still, it's an interesting championship course with a glorified history. In many ways its a bit of a slog playing quite long and characterized by what I find strange design features in many cases. Think doglegs right with fairways that steeply slope from right to left. Or vice versa for dogleg lefts. It has trees that swallow your golf balls and somehow alter the normal physics of what goes up must come down. On one play I had such a laugh with our group when more than a few balls ended up staying up in the trees.
The absolute highlight of a round there is the burger dog at the halfway house. Even though it's not my favorite from a design perspective it's in a unique and beautiful spot in a wonderful climate and makes for a great day out on the links. I'm just not a fan of the architecture. That being said I would say my favorite hole on the course is the 18th and not because it gets you finally to the bar.
Without being repetitive, I have played the course on several occasions and been a keen media observer when the 1987, 1998 and 2012 US Opens were played at the Lake Course. The layout, as mentioned by others, plays off a side hill slope. The holes work their way back and forth along the side hill nature of the property. When the course plays especially fast as it can be for the Opens the unpredictability of where the ball will finish gets extremely magnified.
A good example of that is the 17th hole -- which was changed to a par-5 at the 2012 event because so few people could actually hit and remain on the sloped left-to-right fairway.
Memorability is not a strong fixture of the Lake Course. Nearly the entire course blends into the scenery with the trees standing guard alongside each hole. I do like a few holes. The slightly uphill 2nd is extremely good. The fairway slopes to the left and heaven help anyone who loses the shot to that side. The green is elevated and well defended with a bunker in front and three others to the side locations. The downhill par-3 is also quite strong. Even from an elevated tee the green is pinched in towards the front and again well served by flanking bunkers. There's more room to the back but anything long will need Houdini's assist to escape with par.
I am not a fan of the "reverse camber" holes at the 4th and 5th. Both are strong par-4's because the terrain accentuates even the tiniest of miscues. As mentioned by John in his review -- there's no alternate way to play the hole and your forced to play a shot that even the world's best cannot always pull off.
The short uphill par-4 7th is a fun hole -- and it's one of the few that adds a good deal to the strategic side of things. The par-3 8th was simply turned out to something far, far different than its original intent. Extending the length to a far greater number only added more difficulty -- not compelling architecture.
From the 9th through the 15th -- you encounter the side hill nature of the property. The holes are quite simply indistinguishable from one other. Much is made of the long par-5 16th. It is simply that -- long. The sad part about 600+ yard holes is that top players all play to the same point for their 3rd -- leaving roughly 100 yards to the target. The 17th follows with an uphill movement and the par-5 is a good opportunity for a birdie. The much hyped short par-4 18th is exactly that -- way overrated by many and certainly not worthy of mention with the elite short par-4's in golf. The green has been softened to provide for a greater range of pin positions because the former green was sloped too severely from back-to-front. Who can forget the inane situation Payne Stewart faced when a back pin was used and his ball could not find a resting spot during the 1998 Open.
The Bay area is blessed with a wonderful array of superior designed courses. The Lake can certainly play tough because the rough is certainly among the toughest you will encounter given the frequency of the misty marine layer that hovers over the course. Few people who finish an 18-hole round will confess unbridled love for the course. Amazingly, those same people when playing nearby at San Francisco GC will say the completely opposite thing. No doubt the main draw when coming to the area is the City of San Francisco. The Lake Course is an unremitting chore of a course. I can only shake my head and have to ask "why" the PGA will come here in 2028 and even worse -- the 2032 Ryder Cup is scheduled here as well. Yikes!
by M. James Ward
Some courses don't connect with a player's eye. Bubba Watson confessed Olympic's Lake course didn't catch his, on his way to missing the cut at the 2012 US. Open. It seems the same can be said for Mr. Ward.
I'm an Olympic Club member. Sure, I'm biased. But I've also played my fair share of courses around California, the U.S., the world.
The Lake Course is a challenge, every single time I play it. Frankly, I find most headlining, high profile courses lacking in comparison.
Something puzzling from Mr. Ward's review is his assertion that holes 9 through 15 are "indistinguishable." Honestly, no difference between hole 11 and hole14? Ok.
If you're lucky enough to have the opportunity, play the well known nearby courses: SFGC, Cal Club, Harding, Lake Merced. All great tracks (well, Harding is so-so). Post your scores here. The results won't lie: Olympic will be the highest score for 9/10 players.
And that you'll remember.
Dear Mr. Paine,
Appreciate your comments but it's not just my eye alone that views the course in the same manner. Here's what architect Tom Doak said in his review via his 2015 Confidential Guide book comments.
"The Olympic Club is an amazing facility, and the Lake Course is a respected championship venue, but I don't know how anyone can love it. The front nine is full of doglegged par-4's with "reverse camber," turning back against the grade of the fairway; such holes do separate the men from the boys, but they would be more appropriate in open country where you can choose your own line instead of having trees choose it for you. I do like the idea of a short par-4 finishing hole in a natural amphitheater, but the famous 18th is nothing more than a lay-up tee shot and a wedge that has to be played below the hole. No course with so few risk/reward decisions should be considered one of America's greatest."
Mr.Paine -- the hosting of big time events does not automatically mean compelling architecture. Baltusrol Lower, in my neck of the woods, has hosted a good deal of events but also suffers from a lack of scintillating design. Difficulty alone does not equate to architectural heft. I find it interesting the USGA has opted to forego the Lake Course for any US Opens for the considerable future. Hats off to the club in reaching out to the PGA of America in keeping a high profile but my comments are shared by others both on this site and elsewhere.
I found the Olympic Lake course to be very difficult to play for a non-scratch player. The trees are grown in very tight, it is built on the side of a mountain and the greens are too fast. It is hard to get an even lie more or less anywhere on the property. In addition, to properly play the course you have to be able to hit a draw and a fade at will. What makes this especially difficult is that most of the lies you will have require you to work the ball the opposite of the way the terrain dictates. That is, if you have a cut lie it requires you to hit a draw shot and vice versa. One of the prominent design features of Olympic is the 'Reverse Camber' which is an architectural term for fairways that slope in one direction while the golfer aims at a green that turns the opposite way. A Reverse Camber is not a unique architectural feature at Olympic, other courses have similar designs. What makes Olympic especially difficult is that there is nowhere to play safe or to bail out, unlike on most other designs. It simply forces you to have to try to hit a shot that all but the most accomplished golfer cannot hit.
On the bright side, Olympic Club only has one fairway bunker. In this regard it is the antithesis of Whistling Straits with its close to 1,000 bunkers. The thing is, Olympic doesn't need any fairway bunkers. The combination of hemmed in fairways, small greens and uneven lies is enough to easily rank it among the most difficult courses in the world along with Oakmont, Bethpage Black and Royal County Down (with the wind up!). The routing of Olympic is essentially sideways on the hillside. It does not play up and down the hill, but rather you find yourself walking sideways on hilly terrain throughout your round.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Once the trip to Pebble was confirmed I tried in all ways to get both to San Francisco GC and Olympic Club. 3 weeks from the trip I surrendered with SFGC but a magic email came to my inbox confirming the Tee Time for May 20th at 9:30am. I was at Monterrey, my flight from Argentina arrived the day before and drove directly to play Cypress Point and stayed at Carmel. The following day I was up 5:30am with friend Lucas to drive 2hs and experience another Major Venue. It is not easy to get unaccompanied play and not always you are paired with somebody friendly, but this time we played with a PGA Pro from Australia who made our round really a very enjoyable one.
8:00am we were there and after breakfast at the Club House and a long practice session including putting we were ready to tee off. I have to be honest: I was not 100% familiar with the entire course, I only had a clear picture of #1, #16 and #18, every other hole was a completely new walk for me! I had the picture that #1 was an easy hole but after a pushed driver, a topped second and 3 putts the double bogey was a cheap result, but very frustrating! #2 is an uphill par 4, not long and were to the green you will always need one more club than what you imagine. #3 is a very nice par 3, with elevated tee which faces the Golden Gate. 4-5-6 are some very tough par 4s, where you need to managed effect on your driver in order to hit fairway. Short par 4 #7 is one of the jewels, Pros will be able to hit the green but if on the wrong platform be sure you will 3 putt. #8 is a very good par 3 which finishes by the Club House (in US Open they use #1 and #9 tees) before tough #9 if you miss on the right side of the green. #10 is a flat par 4, dogleg right finishing in the Hot Dog House (we had some great Burger Dogs!!). Then 11th is maybe one of the best ones, long and tight to a 2 platform green. At 13 I hit the worst shot of the day, hooking an 8 iron from center of the fairway to left of the bunkers. But what came after was even stranger, as I hit my lob wedge the ball just did not move and went straight down, what in Argentina we call an aerial potato (papa aérea). I didn’t like par 3 #13, it was just standard. Dogleg left par 4 #14 is one of the greats, 15th is a nice short one before long par 5 #16 which was the final fall of Furyk in 2012´s Open. 17th is just ok, nothing too special. But 18th is just iconic, elevated from the fairway for a second uphill approach to finish watching the immense Club House. A great experience, you feel that “7th gear” that Major Venues have and lunch afterwards in the Club House watching both courses and golf on TV just makes it perfect.
I have to say to have played better designed courses and with a more special feel (Merion and Oak Hill of this type) but the pristine maintenance and the challenge make it a superbe test of golf. And if you have some more energy, go and do the Cliffs Course maybe the best par 3 course I have ever been to.
I first visited the Lake course in 2007 and many of my opinions have remained unchanged. It continues to be very demanding off the tee, whether you have to nail it down a corridor of never ending trees, or shape it in either direction to find the fairway.
I did appreciate the new 8th hole which has become one of the club’s signature holes, and feel that the new green location was a terrific change and welcomed improvement. Similarly with the 18th hole, the clubhouse in the background provides a magnificent setting and tantalizing finish into such a small narrow green surrounded by murderous bunkers.
Small subtle greens, challenging approach shots, and raw toughness characterize this old layout worthy of its inclusion in the USGA rotation.