Johnny Miller was just another golfer at Abraham Lincoln High School

June 27, 2012

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.”

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So yeah, the courses were a big part of it. But if you press Miller, Lunn & Co. for the source of their golf skills, they eventually focus on two settings: the caddie shack and the putting green.

“We all grew up as caddies,” says Nelson. “It was fun, and you could make big dough for a double. Tommy and I would get $14 for packing two trunks around the San Francisco Club.” O’Connor says he was underwhelmed by the $2 fee for his first loop at Olympic, “but then the guy gave me five bucks, and I was like, Yesssss! It was fantastic.” It was also a tutorial in adult behavior. The Lincoln kids were exposed to gambling, gamesmanship, tobacco and alcohol, fashion violations, incessant needling and male bonding, all of which prepared them for competition and—need we say it—for life.

And when they weren’t looping or playing their own rounds, the boys gathered on the putt­ing green at Lincoln or Harding Park and played all comers for nickels and dimes—­exactly as Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson had done as young caddies in Texas. “That was the secret,” says Lunn. “That’s how you got really, really good.”

As good as Tommy O’Kane, who collected more dimes than a cable car conductor. As good as Johnny Miller, who once completed an 18-hole round in only 16 putts.

“When I was between 12 and 16,” Miller will tell you with a straight face, “I think I was in the world’s top 10 as a putter.”

Told of Miller’s boast, his old teammates begin nodding like bobbleheads: “Oh, he was! . . . No doubt . . . I’d say top three. . . .”

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.”

That good.

There were a lot of great players and great teams,” says Lunn, standing beside his trophy case at Woodbridge Country Club, where he has worked for more than three decades. “But our team clicked, and we were solid through the sixth man. We couldn’t be beat in the city.”

Or in California either, he suspects. But we’ll never know. San Francisco’s three-month high school season started in April and ended in June with the league tournament. There was no state tournament.

That great Lincoln team, for our purposes, spans the Miller years, 1961 through ’64. Lunn was the oldest (18 when he graduated in ’64) and the team leader. The long knocker went on to win six times on Tour, finished third in a U.S. Open, won a Masters par-3 contest, tied Hogan for the course record at Cypress Point (63), and made the cover of Sports Illustrated before a wrist injury derailed his career at age 27. “Bob made the game look easy,” says Nelson.

Nelson, a freshman in ’63, was a mischief-maker who saved his money by sneaking through the muni fences on weekends. (“Doug played more 17-hole rounds than anybody,” says O’Kane.) “I was always the kid,” says Nelson. After high school, Nelson won the California Amateur, the Northern California Amateur and the California Four-Ball. O’Kane was the team’s joker, but he was a serious stick. “Tommy was short and a little round, but he was a heck of a player,” Lunn recalls. “If he had wanted to, he could have gone on Tour.” Asked about his rep as a needler, O’Kane says, “Well, I got beat a lot by Lunn and Miller, so if occasionally I got in front of them, I couldn’t let them forget it.”

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.”

Miller, who returned to the Olympic Club as a BYU sophomore and tied for eighth in the 1966 U.S. Open, frustrated San Francisco golfers of the era like no one else. “When Johnny was a freshman, he was five-foot, 105 pounds,” says O’Kane. “He was a little assassin. He couldn’t reach some of the par-4s with two drivers, but you’d find yourself 1 down on the 18th tee. Every time!” “And he was never in the trees,” says Nelson. “Nobody hit it straighter. His irons flew like darts.”

Which of Lincoln’s stars was the best ball striker? They say it was Paul O’Kane, Tommy’s older brother, who turned pro after graduating in 1962. “Paul was maybe the best I’ve ever seen,” says Nelson, “but he couldn’t putt.” Paul tried everything from hypnosis to a six-pound putter, but nothing worked. “To the day he quit, he still hit a one-iron as well as anyone I ever saw,” says brother Tom. “But that last three feet, oh man, you had to close your eyes.” Paul O’Kane, who died two years ago, worked three decades as a San Francisco fireman.

I earned a letter for golf,” Lunn said recently. “I looked at it just the other day, when I was putting together an album for the club. And I saw Johnny two years ago at the Legends of Golf. That’s the only tournament we play anymore.” Asked when he’d last been to Lincoln, the teaching pro smiled. “Probably the day I graduated. But I’d love to touch base with those guys again.”

Miller, who may be able to see his alma mater from the NBC tower at the Open, said, “We don’t see each other much anymore, but we’re still close. We’re all good friends.”

Of the three visitors to the gym, only O’Kane had been back since graduation. “I worked with the golf program in 2007,” he says, looking up at the championship banners. “It was good, but I didn’t feel that the kids had the golf bug. One young man did; he was a very fine player and ended up getting a full scholarship to USF. But the rest of the kids. . . .” He shrugs. “We loved it so much. Harding Park and Olympic were the greatest playgrounds in the world for kids who loved golf.”

“We had the bug,” says Nelson.

“We really had the bug,” says O’Connor.

They all smile.