When is an Olympic Club not an Olympic Club? Golf philosophers have debated the issue for ages.
Well, not for ages. But for 18 holes on the west side of San Francisco, absolutely.
Each year that a U.S. Open returns to a classic course such as Olympic -- with its storied fairways and a 1926 clubhouse that could have been the Great Gatsby's pro shop -- it creates a huge dilemma for the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association.
Here's why: Advances in equipment, from drivers to irons to the balls themselves, allow today's golfers to hit the ball farther and with more topspin or backspin. So to give the old courses a fair chance, the USGA must remodel and reconstruct the landscape.
That's why the Olympic Club is playing 395 yards longer this week than it played in 1955 when the course first hosted the Open. Several of the greens have been rebuilt. One hole, No. 8, has been rebuilt entirely. Traditionalists say this stuff perverts the course's feel and mojo.
So a question was posed Monday to Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, who is in charge of mojo and all other important matters. Does he think Olympic has been genetically modified into something significantly different? Or is the course merely dressed up in different clothes?
"I would use the latter term," Davis said. "To me, this is the same Olympic Club. But yes, there are changes."
As I discovered Monday. On the fifth hole, I went searching for a particular tree. Couldn't find it.
That was a shame, given the tree's role in the last Open played at Olympic, in 1998. During Sunday's final round, eventual winner Lee Janzen teed off at No. 5 and watched his ball be swallowed by a large Monterey cypress tree along the right side of the fairway. The ball stuck in a branch. Didn't come down.
"Drat," thought Janzen. (Well, he probably had a nastier thought, but let's go with "drat" for the family audience.) He thought he had blown his title chance. A lost ball meant a penalty stroke and would force Janzen to re-hit his tee shot as his third stroke.
Still, he had five minutes to locate the ball before having it officially declared lost. Janzen walked down to the tree, looked up at the tree, sighed at the tree, shrugged at the tree. Then he turned around and -- as the "wait" clock passed four minutes -- prepared to walk back toward the tee box.
Suddenly, however, a gust of wind kicked up and ... plop. Janzen's ball fell from the tree into the rough. His wife nearly fainted, she said later. Janzen smiled in relief. He walked up, chipped the ball onto the fairway, went on to save par and won the Open.
So where is that tree today?
"That tree, I believe, is gone," Davis said. "I don't know that for sure," said Davis. "But I'm 95 percent sure."
No surprise, if true. Dozens of trees have been removed from the Olympic premises since 1998 -- none old growth, because the golf course's original terrain was mostly sand dunes -- and as mentioned, other major alterations have been made. Once, more than 30,000 pine, cypress, cedar and eucalyptus trees bordered the Olympic fairways and snatched away many wayward drives. Disease has claimed some. But most were removed to open up more air for golfers to better shape their shots.
That may or may not help their scores, given the other alterations. Besides the lengthened holes created by new teeing areas, the first hole is now a long par 4, not a short par 5. The 17th hole is now a shorter par 5, not a long par 4.
Yet probably the biggest change at Olympic is one that's not blatantly visible. The greens are now covered with bentgrass instead of the dastardly poa annua strain. This means the greens should roll more true throughout the day. (Poa annua, common on the West Coast, is a hardier strain with thicker blades and it grows rapidly, so those with afternoon tee times risk bumpy putts.) But the greens will also roll more quickly and be more treacherous.
Theoretically, these changes allow the USGA to preserve its mission of retaining par as a worthy winning score. In 1955, the Olympic Lake Course played to 6,700 yards. This week, it will be 7,095.
"If they kept the 1955 length, I think you'd see 10 or 12 under par as the winning score," said Grant Spaeth, the respected 79-year-old former USGA president from Menlo Park.
Spaeth is known as one of those old-course traditionalists and has been a driving force behind the Open returning to America's most famed golfing turf -- Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Oakmont and so on. He successfully lobbied to return the Open next year to Merion, near Philadelphia.
And yet Spaeth is also the first to admit that this week's Olympic is hardly the same one traversed at the other four Opens there in 1955, 1966, 1987 and 1998.
"No, no way," Spaeth said recently.
Spaeth claimed, however, that there is enough of the DNA left at all the classic courses, including Olympic, to make the tournaments worthwhile and meaningful.
"Generally speaking," Spaeth said, "I think golfers -- players, spectators, TV viewers -- enjoy visiting the old sites and experiencing the history of those old places. You know, the Jack Nicklaus 1-iron at Pebble's No. 17, the Watson chip at the same hole, and on and on. They are like the old movies -- fabulous. And we should not leave them."
One visit to Olympic this week makes a person understand what Spaeth means. There are more bleachers and corporate tents than in 1998. But the canted fairways and doglegs are largely the same. The views across San Francisco are the same. And when walking up the 18th fairway, golfers will still confront that fabulous clubhouse, where the bar was once populated by the likes of Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason and Bing Crosby.
Yes, some famous trees have been lost along the way. The genetic makeup may have been tweaked. But the bloodline is the same. No one will get to that clubhouse on Sunday without playing the best golf of his life. At the U.S. Open, that chunk of mojo never vanishes.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.