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Ty Cobb at Olympic

The US Open golf championship is being held this week at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, prompting articles in magazines, newspapers, and websites about the club’s history and the four previous US Opens that it has hosted. Each of these Opens is famous as the occasion of an upset, each worthy of a lengthy re-telling. That’s not the purpose of this post, but let me at least review briefly.

1955: One of the greatest upsets in sporting history. Jack Fleck, a muni pro, ties Ben Hogan in regulation, beating him the next day in a playoff. Hogan was never the same. Fleck, still alive, has been in the press a lot the last couple of weeks.

1966: I remember this one. Not exactly an upset when Billy Casper wins, except for the fact that Arnold Palmer led by 7 with nine holes to go. Casper tied him, both finishing 7 strokes ahead of third place Jack Nicklaus, with Casper beating Palmer in the playoff the next day.

1987: Sigh. I remember this one too. My hero, Tom Watson, entered the last round a stroke ahead of Scott Simpson, but Simpson putted like crazy to edge Watson by a stroke, with Ballesteros, Crenshaw, and Langer another 4 strokes back. It was Father’s Day, I was at Gail’s brother’s apartment watching with Gail, Jessica, her brother, and her father. Joel was there also, sort of, a week away from entering the world. I couldn’t get them to understand that we were watching history. They were too busy talking about everything but golf.

1998: I can’t forget this one, not because of what we watched, but because we didn’t. We were in South Dakota on the occasion of Gail’s father’s 60th high school reunion. The reunion was in Groton on Saturday of Open weekend. We were staying with her dad’s sister-in-law in Claremont. He was with Gail’s cousin in Britton. (See if you can find these places on a map.) We all drove down to Groton for the reunion, returned to Claremont for a bit, during which I caught the end of the third round, then drove all the way back to Groton and on west to Aberdeen for the festive dinner. Sunday was one of the crazier days of our lives, as we drove all over eastern South Dakota and even a bit of Minnesota in search of Gail’s cousin’s son’s baseball tournament. When we finally got there, in some park on the outskirts of Sioux Falls, the food available for sale was gone. No lunch. After the games, we had dinner at a gas station-restaurant-store just off the interstate, Gail’s other cousin having made the drive up from I-don’t-remember-where so we could all be together. I was going crazy. I just wanted to get to our hotel and see the end of the golf. But this was a huge family reunion, so that wasn’t about to happen. And I didn’t yet have a smart phone to keep up with the action.

So, anyway, we got to our downtown Sioux Falls hotel, went up to our rooms (Gail and me in one, Joel and grandpa in another), and the golf was still on. We got to see Payne Stewart’s crushing loss to Lee Janzen. Having led by 3 going into the round, with a 5-stroke gap over Janzen, Stewart would lose by a stroke. (A year later, Stewart would famously defeat Phil Mickelson by 1 with a dramatic putt on 18 at Pinehurst. This is the tournament where Mickelson stood ready at any point to fly home for the birth of his and Amy’s first child, who ended up waiting until the next day to show up. We were in New York that day, celebrating Father’s Day with my father. Another missed last round, except for that putt, which Joel and I saw on tv at the club where we were eating dinner.)

It turned out to be a lovely evening. After the golf, Gail and I walked around downtown, got a sense of the city, then returned for dessert in our hotel restaurant with the guys. And the next day, we drove across the state to Rapid City, with many fascinating stops along the way, such as Mitchell’s Corn Palace, the crossing of the Missouri, Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, and, just for scenic effect, the scariest weather I ever saw for the final 30 miles or so along I-90 into Rapid City, with tornadoes in the distance.

I’m straying. The theme of the US Open review: Olympic, where golfing dreams go to die. A course with a painful history. What famous golfer will lose by a stroke or in a playoff this year after having victory in his hands?

Ty Cobb is in the post’s title. Let’s find out why.

The AP’s Antonio Gonzalez had a piece Friday (hat tip: Geoff Shackelford) on The Olympic Club’s history beyond the Opens. He explains at the beginning:

Next week’s U.S. Open host has conquered far more than golf’s greatest.

Little black books buried in the archives of The Olympic Club reveal a place that groomed gold medalists and heavyweight champions, whipped writer Mark Twain into shape and whose members teased Ty Cobb so much after he lost to a 12-year-old that the baseball great rarely returned.

Farther down, we get the Cobb story. It’s short, lacking in detail, but too good to pass up:

Cobb, a hot-tempered and aggressive slugger who received the most votes on the original Hall of Fame ballot, played 12-year-old Bob Rosburg in the first club championship in 1939. Although Cobb had retired from baseball more than a decade earlier, his competitiveness never cooled.

Cobb lost 7 and 6. Rosburg later won the PGA Championship in 1959. And while popular lore is that Cobb resigned in furor, the club has no record that he gave up his membership. Rosburg told Golf Digest in 2010 that Cobb was gracious in defeat but “guys at the club rode him unmercifully for losing to a child. He disappeared and didn’t come back to Olympic for years.”

“He was just so embarrassed,” Olympic general chairman Stephen Meeker said of Cobb, recalling the story.

Another painful Olympic loss.

Gonzalez’s summary of Cobb’s baseball greatness is incomplete, to say the least. A study of Cobb’s stats, here, might help, for those who need help. Check out the career .366 batting average, or the 4189 hits. There’s good reason he was an inaugural Hall of Famer. As for Rosburg (“Rossy”), he had a distinguished golfing career, becoming even more widely known during his decades as a roving commentator on ABC’s golf broadcasts.

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