Over 150 Years of Fostering Amateur Athletics in a Spirit of Close Harmony
With over 5,000 members competing in 19 sports, two clubhouses and 45 holes of golf, The Olympic Club has come a long way since its humble backyard beginnings over 150 years ago. While much has changed, the camaraderie between our members and their devotion to sport has not. The Club is more than just a place to work out or play golf and tennis; it is a community that links the past, present and future.
On May 6, 1860, 23 charter members founded the San Francisco Olympic Club, turning their informal gymnastics training sessions held in the backyard of Arthur and Charles Christian Nahl into a lasting institution. The by-laws stated that the purpose of the Club was “to strengthen and improve the body by gymnastic exercises.”
Early rented facilities were stark and small, limiting membership. Moving into a series of larger, better adorned quarters encouraged growth of the membership rolls. This allowed the Club to later boast that “nearly every person of note in San Francisco was or had been a member.” William Randolph Hearst took over control of the San Francisco Examiner the same year he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Club’s Board. Two of San Francisco’s Big Four, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford, were members. Early well-known athletes included Philo Jacoby, an expert marksman declared “Champion Rifle Shot of the World” in 1876 and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the famous boxer who won the world heavyweight title in 1892
Olympians desired their own permanent clubhouse. In 1888, the membership approved the purchase of land on Post Street and the plans of architect Henry A. Schulze for a building. Finally, a ground breaking ceremony was held on April 8, 1891 and the City Clubhouse opened in January 1893. The plunge, filled with salt water piped directly from the Pacific Ocean, opened later that year.
Olympians were in this home for only 13 years before tragedy struck. In April 1906, the great earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed the 1893 Clubhouse. Afterwards, Olympians bonded together to create something better than what had been before. The new City Clubhouse and natatorium opened in June 1912. The most recent renovation finished in 2006, returning the building to its original glory and adding the Sutter Street annex. A world class facility, the City Clubhouse features a fitness center, cardio solarium, hotel facilities, handball and squash courts, circuit training facilities, two basketball courts and two swimming pools.
In the early 1900s, amateur athletics boomed around the country. The Olympic Club was a West Coast powerhouse, facing the best the East Coast had to offer and frequently winning. From 1890 to 1920, the Club fielded its first rugby, basketball, soccer, water polo and lacrosse teams, while continuing to sustain a multitude of other sports, including swimming and diving, wrestling, gymnastics, handball, baseball, football, fencing, tennis, boxing, bowling, and billiards.
The Club hosted local, regional, and national athletic tournaments, and sent members to national and international competitions, including the Olympic Games. In 1924 alone, the club sent 23 Olympians to the Olympics in Paris, the largest single delegation from a club. Currently, Olympians compete in 19 sports; newer competitive sports include skiing and snowboarding, squash, triathlon and rough water swimming.
In 1918, the Club assumed control of the operations of the financially distressed Lakeside Golf Club, thus gaining the 18-hole golf course designed by Wilfred Reid. By 1922, the Club purchased enough acreage to replace the original golf course with two 18-hole golf courses, as well as build a new clubhouse. The Lakeside clubhouse, designed by famed architect Arthur Brown, Jr. (who also designed the San Francisco City Hall) opened in 1925. Willie Watson designed and Superintendent Sam Whiting constructed the first Ocean (Pacific Links) and Lake Courses in 1924. Due to storms during the winter of 1925/1926, the second Lake Course (today’s) and Ocean course were designed by Sam Whiting and opened in 1927.
The Club built a tennis complex in 1936, which opened with an exhibition by tennis stars of the day Don Budge, Gene Mako, Helen Wills Moody and Alice Marble. The Club hosted a Davis Cup event the following year when the US team defeated Japan. Over the years, the tennis facility expanded to include six hard and two clay courts.
Lakeside has gone through several major renovations to modernize and upgrade the facilities. A new 9-hole par 3 Cliffs Course overlooking the Pacific Ocean was added in 1994. The Club renovated the Ocean Course several times over the years. A new course, designed by Tom Wieskopf, opened in 2000 and was remodeled in 2012 under the guidance of Bill Love, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. The Club completed the latest Lake Course renovation in 2009 which was overseen by Love and Pat Finlen, then the Director of Golf Maintenance. The biggest changes were to the 7th and 8th holes. The 294-yard 7th hole remains a drivable par 4, but the new two-tiered green with a small front opening creates a risk-reward decision for players trying for the green. The new 8th hole, the first routing change to the course since 1927, was sculpted into the surrounding hillside with views of the clubhouse. It played as a 205-yard par 3 for the 2012 Open.The Lakeside Clubhouse itself was extensively updated in 1995.
In 1955, the Club had the honor of hosting its first U.S. Open. Robert Trent Jones, the USGA golf course architect, arrived prior to the US Open to prepare the Lake Course, which included lengthening it, altering par on several holes and adding a fairway bunker to #6. The 1955 Open came down to a playoff between Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan; Fleck, an unknown golf professional, took the championship over Hogan, already a legendary golf figure. When Billy Casper won over Arnold Palmer at the 1966 US Open, the Lake cemented its reputation as a host of upsets and “a graveyard of great golfers.” The course lived up to its reputation in both 1987 and 1998, when Scott Simpson won the 1987 Open over Tom Watson and Lee Janzen won over Payne Stewart in 1998. During the 2012 U.S. Open, Webb Simpson emerged from four shots back to take the title at 1-over-par 281.
However, the Club remains much more than just a country club. Among many other recent accomplishments in recent years, members have brought home Olympic medals, international water polo titles, Masters swimming records and built a national competitive basketball program. In a growing variety of ways, Olympians of all ages continue to build memories with their families and friends at the Club.