Editor’s note: I’m at the Olympic Club in San Francisco all week for the 112th U.S. Open Championship.
The Olympic Club had a storied sports history long before golf entered the scene.
SIX MONTHS BEFORE ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS ELECTED as the 16th president of the United States, two German-born brothers, Arthur and Charles Nahl, and Ruben Lloyd formed what would become America’s first athletic club. Students of the Turnverein, a German gymnastics program created by Friedrich Jahn, the Nahl brothers had built an exercise area in the backyard of their San Francisco home where young athletes gathered to work out.
The club’s first location was a small loft above a coal yard at the corner of New Montgomery and Market streets. The monthly rent for the modest premises was $100. With a capacity of 75 people, the club quickly outgrew the space and moved to a location on Market Street, where the membership climbed to 500. The club continued to rent quarters throughout the city until the its first permanent home was built on Post Street in 1893 under the innovative leadership of William Greer Harrison, whose tenure as club president spanned from 1886 to 1907.
During the club’s early decades, the name evolved to “The Olympic Club” and a Winged “O” appeared as the club emblem. The club’s original purpose, according to the by-laws, was “to strengthen and improve the body through gymnastic exercises.” Its early sports were gymnastics, boxing, fencing and wrestling. The club’s athletic and social traditions would soon expand in many new directions.
Teenager James J. Corbett joined as a teenager in 1884 to learn how to box. Eight years later, “Gentleman Jim” knocked out reigning champion John L. Sullivan to become the world heavyweight boxing champion, a title he held for nearly five years. Author and humorist Mark Twain and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst also joined, beginning a roster of distinguished members that later included two California governors, Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren, who would become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Olympic Club was dominant in multiple sports, most notably track and field and boxing. The club sent its first athletes to the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Two years later it hosted the National AAU Boxing Championship.
The year 1906 was a turning point for the Olympic Club and all of San Francisco. Early on April 18 an earthquake struck the city with cataclysmic force. Thirteen years after Harrison had spearheaded the construction of what he termed “the largest and most perfectly appointed athletic building in the world,” the Olympic Club burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the devastating quake. The club would rise from the ashes under new leadership, a 34-year-old attorney named William F. Humphrey.
America’s first athletic club would rebuild at 524 Post Street and attain glorious heights during Humphrey’s long presidency. Its athletes and teams would compete and excel in baseball, basketball, billiards, bowling, boxing, crew, cricket, cycling, fencing, football, gymnastics, handball, ice hockey, polo, rifle and pistol, rugby, soccer, squash, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo and wrestling.
They would win often—at National AAU Championships, the Olympic Games, Wimbledon, the Davis Cup and more—and many of the club’s athletes would set national and world records.
In the midst of this golden age of amateur athletics, the visionary and opportunistic Humphrey and his club were destined to add a growing American pastime that would spread Olympic’s influence and fame—the game of golf.