Three graying baby boomers—a mortgage broker, an insurance broker and a commercial painter—stand in an empty high school gym, staring up at the red-and-gold banners on the north wall. The banners commemorate championship seasons in football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, track . . . but the banner with the longest list of title seasons is for boys’ golf.
“In ’63 and ’64, we never lost a match,” says the mortgage man, who’s in a dark sweater over a burgundy polo.
“I don’t think we lost a point!” says the insurance guy, whose blue windbreaker is a tee prize from a charity scramble.
“I know I never lost,” says the painter, the most rakish of the three with his trimmed white beard and sunglasses. The tail of a Hawaiian shirt dangles from the front of his buttoned-up rain jacket.
His friends second the motion: “I didn’t either. . . . Nope.”
And neither, they don’t have to add, did their two best players.
Tom O’Kane, the insurance broker, doesn’t want to brag. “But I stood on the 18th green at Sacramento’s Haggin Oaks in 1963 and watched my teammate Bob Lunn win the U.S. Public Links Championship. And in 1964, having qualified for the national junior, I watched my teammate Johnny Miller win the U.S. Junior.” O’Kane goes for understatement: “I kind of knew we were pretty good.”
The three old friends have plopped on folding chairs in the Abraham Lincoln High gym to share memories and submit to fond needling. The gym, they are quick to point out, holds no special meaning for them. “You were considered a sissy if you were on the golf team,” says Doug Nelson, the painter who won the 1971 California Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach. “You didn’t tell anyone.”
Ron (Rocket) O’Connor, the mortgage broker and former teenage qualifier for the PGA Tour’s Lucky International Open, shifts his voice to a lower register: “Me, a golfer? Nah, I play football!”
They laugh, appreciating the irony. Abraham Lincoln is the only high school to claim two U.S. Open champions as alums (Ken Venturi, class of 1949, and Miller, ’64)—and yes, you can see its cream-colored central tower from the Olympic Club, site of next week’s Open—but it is an urban high school. Surrounded by sidewalks, asphalt basketball courts and tissue-box homes, Lincoln’s high-ceilinged corridors reverberate to the treads and chatter of a multiethnic student body. Fifty years ago Lincoln was mostly white and middle-class, but students weren’t dropped off by moms in station wagons. San Francisco kids walked from home or rode buses powered by overhead lines. Lunn, the son of a motorcycle cop, lived at 47th and Taraval and practiced by hitting balls into a mattress in a friend’s garage. O’Connor, a judge’s son and the third of seven children, took the 28 bus home to a house west of Twin Peaks.
“That high school team was amazing,” Miller says the next morning, calling from his Napa County home. “Bob Lunn really pushed me. Big guy, hit it a long way in the air. And I was pushed by Tommy O’Kane. We’d had a rivalry since I was little. And John Knutson, he was a really good player. . . .”
Thinking it over, the game’s top television analyst is tempted to call his team’s success a fluke. “Lincoln didn’t recruit anybody,” he points out. “We simply showed up.”
Coaching, then. It must have been the swing theories of Will Ryan, Lincoln’s golf coach for 29 years, that made them great.
They all smile at this notion. “We coached the coach,” says Nelson.
“He wasn’t a real good golfer,” adds Lunn. “He might have shot in the 90s.”
“Uncle Will,” they remind us, was a basketball coach, a reliable ride and “a very nice man who was on the 1st tee when we teed off and met us at the end of the match.” Would they have preferred a dedicated golf coach, a Lincoln Leadbetter? No way. “The best golf coaches didn’t overcoach and get you out of your natural swing,” says Miller. “Will was perfect for me.”
If coaching wasn’t the secret, Lincoln’s golfers must have outworked their opponents.
That’s it, says O’Connor. “I used to hit 500 sand shots a day, maybe more. I read that chapter in Hogan’s book that said you had to get your hands bloody. I wasn’t happy unless I went home with my hands taped in the right spots.”
Nonsense, says Nelson. “Rocket hit a lot, but I never practiced, except for the putting green.” Nor was Miller, now in the World Golf Hall of Fame, a range rat. Says O’Kane, “He just played till dark.”
So it was the golf courses, right? The Lincoln kids played their high school matches at the par-68 Lincoln Park muni, a goat’s delight that provides great views of the city but few level lies. They lived closer to and practiced more at scenic Harding Park (now known as TPC Harding Park), site of the 2009 Presidents Cup. A third muni, Sharp Park, was just down the coast.
“Ask us what a monthly card cost for all the courses,” says O’Connor, who immediately supplies the answer. “Six dollars. And it was only a quarter more on the weekends. A quarter per round!”
“The courses weren’t as crowded as they are now,” O’Kane explains. “And the starters were very generous to kids. They took care of us.”
So did the 6,000-member Olympic Club, which struck a blow for inclusion by awarding merit memberships to promising teenage golfers, starting with Miller and eventually including O’Kane and Nelson. “After school we’d walk six blocks, catch the bus to Skyline Boulevard and then hitchhike up the hill to the Olympic Club,” Miller recalls. “Those memories are pretty amazing.”
The Lincoln boys say that San Francisco’s courses taught them what tropical golf academies can’t teach: How to play with fog or rain clouding your glasses; how to make a turn in two sweaters and a rain jacket; how to go down after a mud ball lying on limp, shallowly rooted grass. They also learned different styles of play. The Olympic Club’s long and slopey Lake course, where Jack Fleck upset Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open, rewarded the thoughtful, risk-averse player. The munis called for bravado, birdies and eagles being the only competitive currency. “At Olympic Club you’d get a couple under and protect,” says Nelson. “At Lincoln every hole was a birdie hole until the last three. You could drive half the greens.”
“And if Miller and Lunn were going low,” adds O’Kane, “you had to do the same. I don’t think any of us were scared to put up a good number.” What was a good number at Lincoln? He shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe 63 or 64.”
Miller again: “We’d come up to a guy like you on the putting green and ask if you wanted to play three holes for a nickel. We’d win 25 or 30 cents that way, and then we’d go buy a heated sweet roll and a glass of milk.” He chuckles. “We didn’t try to cheat anybody, but there was no way you could beat us. Even George Archer and Bob Rosburg [established Tour pros who practiced at Lincoln and Harding] knew not to take us on.”
O’Connor, who rose to number three on the ladder, was 20 when he crashed the field of Tour pros at the 1966 Lucky International Open. He was Lincoln’s Mr. Intensity, finishing rounds on greens illuminated by car headlights. “You know how [Phil] Mickelson, at his Hall of Fame induction, said he used to sleep with his four-wood?” O’Connor points a thumb at his chest. “So did I.”