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."
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."