SAN FRANCISCO—it is one of the most famous and infamous holes in major championship golf. The short par-4 18th on The Olympic Club’s Lake Course is as diabolical as it is beautiful. The fairway looks as narrow from the tee as an aisle in the supermarket. The landing area is somewhat blind and approaches from the right side can be blocked out by a huge cypress tree. Miss the short grass to the left and you’ve got a sidehill lie from some of the nastiest rough on the course. Throw in factoring the steep rise to a green that is among the smallest in majors, and it’s a finishing hole that all but guarantees exquisite drama on a Sunday evening.
We got all the evidence we needed late on Saturday afternoon in the 76th U.S. Women’s Open. If this had been the day they handed out the trophy, the memories would have been plentiful.
The leader at seven under, Lexi Thompson drove in the rough, had her approach bounce over the green into more rough, and she deftly pitched to three feet to save par. That would have won her the tournament, because the second player on the board, at two behind Yuka Saso, made bogey from the greenside rough after her approach miraculously squeezed thorugh the branches of the cypress tree that guards the green. And Mel Reid’s travails at 18 should give every player reason to pause. She found the left greenside rough and all but whiffed on her first attempt, eventually making double bogey in a deflating round of 78.
The players have come to love and appreciate the 18th, even as it’s provided them with far more frustration than satisfaction. Through three rounds, it was playing as the sixth-hardest hole, with 47 birdies recorded against 126 bogeys and 23 scores of double or worse.
“It’s a beautiful hole, a signature finishing hole,” Ally Ewing said after Saturday’s third round.
This, from last week’s champion at the LPGA Match-Play in Las Vegas, who bogeyed the Olympic’s 18th the first three days en route to a 54-hole total of seven over. Ewing has twice hit the fairway with her tee shot, but her approaches all three days have ended up in the left greenside sand, which members like to identify as the “I” in the fashioning of “I-O-U” of the three bunkers near the green.
“What’s difficult about it is it’s our tightest fairway out here,” Ewing said. “Today, I hit the fairway, but I was kind of blocked out by the tree. And I hit a less-than-great approach shot. It still requires a really good, precise approach even though I was in the fairway.”
Olympic’s finisher is, of course, at least as well-known for some of its disasters than heroics. It was there in the 1955 U.S. Open that Ben Hogan took three swipes to get out of the left rough and made double bogey to lose a playoff to Jack Fleck in one of the great upsets of all-time. What’s not recalled as much is that Fleck birdied the 18th from seven feet in the fourth round to force the playoff.
On the Friday of the 1998 U.S. Open, the USGA and Joe Dey got goofy with the speed and pin placement at 18, and the moaning could be heard in Sausalito. Payne Stewart had the defining moment when he walked after his putt after it nearly stopped, but just kept rolling. Tom Lehman dressed down a USGA official and wouldn’t talk to reporters. “Give me half an hour,” he said, “or I might kill somebody.”
Since then, the USGA hasn’t gotten crazy, but in 2012, the 18th was definitely part of the final-around theatrics, with Webb Simpson getting up and down from a terrible greenside lie to hold on to win the title.
“I didn’t know much about the history, but when I got here and set foot on the property, the only hole I did remember was 18,” Amy Olson said. “I remember the way Webb finished out and the cool thing of having the spectators packed into an amazing stadium effect on the hill.”
The beauty of 18 is that it plays almost exactly the same as it has for decades, with this week’s yardage of between 325 and 334 being the same as they played in 1955. This week’s players have used everything from a 3-wood to iron off the tee in a desperate search for the fairway.
It’s such a phenomenal hole,” said Olson, who parred the 18th in the first three rounds. “What the scorecard says does not do it justice.”
The USGA did literally cut the players a break before the tournament began. On Monday, most of them deemed it impossible to advance anything out of the rough. By the time play began on Thursday, there was a “first cut” that made it possible to reach the green if they found it.
“There’s just a lot to think about,” said Brooke Henderson, who bogeyed the 18th from the fairway the first day, made a 5 on Friday after punching out of the rough, and scored a routine par on Saturday, going fairway, green, two-putt.
“When you hit it in the rough, you’re screwed,” Henderson said with a laugh.
“There’s a lot to think about it,” she said. “As long as you’re hitting it well, you can play this course and the 18th hole make it look easy, sort of like I did today.”
Winning, though, is never easy, and Olympic’s 18th defines what it means to be a strong closer.
“That’s what you want for a championship,” Olson said. “You want the drama.”