A Brief History of the Olympic Club

The Olympic Club in San Francisco has an interesting story because it did not start life as a golf club—or indeed even as a more traditional Country Club. Instead, the club began life as a gymnastics training center. Olympic had its roots in a few informal gymnastic lessons in the backyard of founders Arthur and Charles Christian Nahl.

The Nahls were German immigrants, and Germany was then at the epicenter of modern gymnastics. For 19th century Germans, physical training was not only a matter of fitness, but also of expressing national pride. Those were the heady days of nationalism, and what today is Germany still was forming from a group of smaller German-speaking states. (An interesting side story, entirely unrelated to golf, is of the influence on German nationalism of the brothers Grimm, whose collection of folktales and German dictionary had a unifying effect).

But as usual, I digress. The Nahls, half brothers, were born in Germany, but fled Europe in the wake of the 1848 revolutions for Brooklyn, then later to California with news of the gold strikes. The Nahls lived first in Carson City, then Rough and Ready, and Sacramento before moving to San Francisco after the Sacramento fire of 1852. As it turns out, the Nahls were great athletes as well as accomplished artists and engravers. Charles has been called California’s first significant artist.

The Nahl’s home served as the growing athletic club’s headquarters from 1855 to 1860. In 1860, it was formally organized as the San Francisco Olympic Club and Arthur was elected its first president.

The name “Olympic Club”  reflects the organization’s commitment to Olympic sports. Over the years it has sent many hundreds of competitors to the Olympic and other medal games. The club currently competes in 19 sports.

In the late 1800s, the club had quite the roster of famous names, including William Randolph Hearst and Mark Twain (who famously remarked that the “coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco).

After operating out of several rented facilities, the organization completed its own clubhouse in the city of San Francisco in 1893. Like so much in San Francisco, the original clubhouse burned in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The rebuilding of the clubhouse was completed in 1912, and included—among other things—a natatorium (a glorified indoor swimming pool, but I love that word), fitness center, cardio solarium, hotel facilities, handball and squash courts, circuit training facilities and two basketball courts. (In this, it resembles athletic clubs in other major cities such as the Detroit Athletic Club, which for a time served as the home of Walter Hagen).

Olympic had great facilities for Olympic sports. But still no golf.

There is of course no space for golf in downtown San Francisco, but in 1918, the club acquired the Lakeside Golf Club, which was located some ten miles away. The opportunity came because the golf club was in some financial trouble. The purchase of additional acreage allowed the building of a second course. The original Wilfred Reid course was then rebuilt as two courses designed by Willie Watson: Lake and Ocean. A third course, a nine-hole par 3 opened in 1994.

Interestingly, Wilfred Reid also was the architect of Indianwood GC in Michigan, where this year’s US Senior Open is held.

This year, 2012, marks the fifth US Open held at Olympic. The others were in 1955, 1966, 1987, and 1998. It also hosted the 1958, 1981 and 2007 US Amateurs.

The club currently has more than 5,000 members.

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