SAN FRANCISCO -- The Olympic Club, site of this week's U.S. Open, mixes good friends and good times in a place where practically everyone believes life is essentially a belly laugh and a well-struck 5-iron.
It has some 1,000 golfing members, mostly upper-middle class businessmen, and offers golfing privileges to some 5,000 others from the City Club downtown.
Perhaps the best description of Olympic comes from the golf writer Charles Price, who, as a guest years ago, was treated with the same indulgent disrespect as any member.
Said Price, "It is cosmopolitan, historically significant, tastefully zany and baroquely beautiful. Like The City itself, it is the sort of place you like to both visit and live in."
This is not a club in which to find seclusion. Ripostes ring and dice cups bang. And when you're out on the course, there's still no silence. You're always hearing golf balls cracking against limbs and trunks of about 40,000 trees.
The Olympic Club grew bottom to top. It was organized on May 23, 1860, at a firehouse, the Lafayette Hook and Ladder Co., as an institution devoted to building muscles and raising sweat.
Olympic was famous for its amateur athletes before adding golf to the list of activities. Before the avaricious pros came to dominate sport in the United States, Olympic had football, baseball, basketball, volleyball and numerous other teams competing in national and international competition.
The club's symbol, the "Winged O," which bears a suspicious resemblance to the logo for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, was almost as well-known in the 1920s and 1930s as, say, Yankee pinstripes are now.
The Olympic Club had 22 members in the 1924 Paris Olympiad, the one embellished by the film "Chariots of Fire." Cornelius Warmderdam set world pole-vaulting records in the 1930s representing the club. Lon Spurrier broke the world mark in the 880 as an Olympic member. Hank Luisetti played on the Olympic Club basketball squad; Gentleman Jim Corbett boxed for the club before turning pro.
The club was nearly 60 years old when it got into the golfing business. The old Lakeside Country Club was in such desperate financial straits at the end of World War I that its clubhouse and property were offered for use to the Olympic Club, with an option to buy the entire 365 acres at a favorable price.
So many were inclined toward golf, a second course had to be constructed. Actually, two new courses -- the tough Lake Course, the easier Ocean Course, incorporating some of the holes from the original -- were built. They opened May 25, 1924. Architect/pro Sam Whiting made additional alterations to the Lake Course, which was ready in its present form in 1927.
Right away, even without all the foliage that now exists and with the stucco clubhouse still under construction, it was obvious the Lake Course was something special.
"The best in the west," Bobby Jones once proclaimed. When Atlanta journalist O.B. Keeler first saw the gnarled cypress trees, he described them as "being designed by a man who had gotten drunk on gin and tried to sober up on absinthe."
Ty Cobb was an Olympic member in the 1940s, and had a characteristically fiery temper on the golf course. One year he ended up playing a junior member named Bob Rosburg in a round of the club championship; he lost and left the club for good. Rosburg, too, left eventually to become a pro and win the 1959 PGA Championship.
Johnny Miller was another junior member, in the 1960s, and while still an amateur played in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic. Miller is one of two Olympic members to have won the U.S. Open. The other is Ken Venturi, who started playing golf across the road at Harding Park, where his dad was pro.
About 2,000 people are waiting to join Olympic, for a $2,500 initiation fee that also will gain them access to the gym and other facilities downtown and allow them to pay $30 a round to play the Lake Course.
Of the 5,000 members of the downtown branch, some 200 are on a waiting list to pay $11,000 more and become full-fledged golf club members. It can take up to 10 years to receive the call.
Olympic's membership comes from a melange of San Francisco merchants, politicians and businessmen, many of them descendants of the city's working class population of a generation ago. Though there are a number of ethnic groups represented in the membership, including several Hispanics and Orientals, no blacks are currently in the club.
At the country club there are three 9-by-12 upstairs rooms that serve as full-time residences. Among the three roomers is Burl Lack, an 86-year-old who shoots his age.
One of the few non-public courses within the limits of a major city, Olympic was the site of the 1930 and 1939 National Match Play Open. The San Francisco Open made an appearance in 1945, when Byron Nelson beat a field that included Ben Hogan and Jimmy Demaret.
The Lake Course was to be Hogan's bete noire, the barrier to a record fifth U.S. Open championship that would never be achieved. Hogan thought he was the winner in 1955 and sat in the locker room smoking and sipping. But bad news arrived like wildfire. Jack Fleck had tied Hogan. The next day in the playoff, Fleck won.
Then, of course there was 1966, the most infamous collapse in Open history. Arnold Palmer, seven shots ahead with nine holes to play, needed to make a putt at 18 just to tie playing partner Billy Casper. That he made it was small consolation, for he squandered a two-shot lead on the back nine in the next day's playoff, losing by four.
Then there was the late Johnny Swanson, who considered golf not so much a game as an obsession. An all-around athlete at the University of San Francisco in the early 1930s, Swanson took up golf following graduation and joined Olympic not long after. Swanson became known as the archetypical Olympian.
Bing Crosby, a friend of Swanson's, once asked him if he were playing much golf. "Only days," responded Swanson.
Swanson played with Tom Weiskopf for many years at the Crosby Pro-Am. He also played off Jack Nicklaus seemingly forever. Swanson, an 8 handicapper at the time, initially came across Nicklaus when Jack was traveling to Pebble Beach to play in the 1961 U.S. Amateur he'd eventually win, beating Kermit Zarley in the final.
A match was arranged involving Nicklaus, Swanson, former San Francisco Examiner golf writer Nelson Cullenward and a 22-year-old law student, Bob Callan, who in time would go on to win both the Olympic Club's presidency and club championship.
"I asked John how many strokes did he want," Nicklaus recalls. "He looked at me with that smirk he always had and said, 'Strokes? Listen, fat boy, I don't need anything from you. It's you and me, belly to belly, for all your trophies.' You know, I had to eagle 17 to keep from losing."
Nicklaus got out of Olympic Club with his money and his pride. Which is more than you can say for Cobb, Hogan or Palmer.