Tom Alter, PGA Tour Staff
Here’s one man’s opinion of the 20 most dramatic moments in the U.S. Open’s 118-year history:
1. 1960 — Three generations of sports legends converged at the top of the leaderboard at Cherry Hills Country Club: Arnold Palmer, the reigning Masters champion in the prime of his career; Ben Hogan, making one last effort at age 48 to win a record fifth national championship; and Jack Nicklaus, a 20-year-old trying to be the first amateur to win the U.S. Open in more than 25 years. In the final round, Palmer took advantage of the thin Colorado air by driving the green at the par-4 first hole for an easy birdie en route to a 65. His come-from-behind victory defined his go-for-broke style, and prompted a surge in popularity for both Palmer and the game of golf.
2. 1950 — After Ben Hogan’s car collided with a bus in 1949, doctors told him he might never walk again. Yet one year later, Hogan hit an iconic 1-iron into the final hole at Merion Golf Club to force a playoff. Bantam Ben eventually won a record-tying four U.S. Opens, but his 1950 triumph over Llyod Mangrum and George Fazio is one of the all-time great comebacks in sports history.
3. 2008 — There probably was no moment more dramatic in Tiger Woods’ amazing career than his birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Woods limped through the tournament because of what was later diagnosed as a damaged knee and a stress fracture in his leg. He faced a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to tie fan favorite Rocco Mediate. Woods let out a scream of exhilaration after his putt snuck in the right side of the hole. He eventually beat Mediate on the first sudden-death playoff hole after they tied in the 18-hole playoff.
4. 1913 — Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old caddie who lived across the street from The Country Club outside of Boston, won an 18-hole playoff against the two best players in the world, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The monumental upset was front-page news across America, and sparked interest in the game of golf. Hollywood turned the unlikely tale of the amateur hero into “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” starring Shia LaBeouf in 2005.
5. 1962 — Everyone in the Pittsburgh area assumed their hometown hero, Arnold Palmer, would win the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. A rookie named Jack Nicklaus had plans of his own, though. The two greats squared off in an 18-hole playoff, which Nicklaus wins for his first TOUR title and the first of a record-setting 18 major championships.
6. 1982 — Tom Watson had been the undisputed best player in the world since the late 1970s, but he’d never won his national championship before the 1982 U.S. Open. Watson was tied for the lead with rival Jack Nicklaus when he hits his tee shot into the deep rough surrounding the green at Pebble Beach’s par-3 17th. His caddie, Bruce Edwards, encouraged Watson to get it close. Watson boldly told him, “I’m gonna hole it.” And, after he did, Watson ran around the green, pointing at Edwards and telling him, “I told you!” Watson also birdied the par-5 18th to add the U.S. Open to his illustrious resume.
7. 1973 — Johnny Miller built his Hall-of-Fame career on being able to produce the hottest of hot streaks the game has ever seen. In the 1973 U.S. Open at the famously-difficult Oakmont Country Club, Miller stormed from behind to shoot 63 and win. It is still the greatest final-round in major championship history.
8. 1999 — At the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Payne Stewart held a one-shot lead on the final hole, but hit a poor tee shot and layed up on the demanding par-4. Phil Mickelson had a chance for a possible win, but his birdie putt slid by. Stewart faced a 15-foot par putt to avoid a playoff. His putt hit nothing but the bottom of the cup. The great finish was shaped by two storylines more important than golf: Mickelson wore a beeper in case his wife, Amy, went into labor with their first child (Amanda was born the next day), while Payne’s second U.S. Open triumph preceded tragedy; he died in a plane crash just a few months later.
9. 1990 — Hale Irwin had already won the U.S. Open twice when he made a late charge at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club. He made four consecutive birdies in the final round, but the most memorable moment came after he drained a 50-foot birdie putt that was so surprising it inspired the normally-stoic Irwin to run around the green, high-fiving the gallery. Irwin, 45, beat journeyman Mike Donald in the next day’s playoff to become the oldest U.S. Open.
10. 1964 — In 1964, the U.S. Open’s final rounds were still contested as a 36-hole marathon on Saturday. The summer heat suffocated Congressional Country Club near Washington, D.C., becoming a health hazard to leader Ken Venturi. Doctors diagnosed Venturi with heat prostration before the start of the final round and warned him that playing could be fatal. He staggered around the final holes, but never lost his lead. Although he can’t remember any of the shots, he survived to win the biggest championship of his brief playing career.
11. 2000 — Tiger Woods was playing perhaps the best golf anyone had ever seen when he teed it up at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It was no surprise that Woods was victorious; however, nobody could imagine that he would win by a record 15 shots. It’s one of the greatest performances in the sport’s history.
12. 1977 — Winning a U.S. Open is hard enough as it is, but dealing with a death threat would be too much for almost anyone… except Hubert Green. One of the most underrated players of his generation, the Hall of Fame member won the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club by not giving in to the phoned-in death threat, the brutal Tulsa heat or the rest of the field.
13. 2006 — The 18th hole at famed Winged Foot Golf Club has seen some of the most dramatic moments in U.S. Open history: Bobby Jones sinking a bending 12-footer to force a playoff in 1929 (which he won); Hale Irwin’s clutch 2-iron to post a winning score of 7 over par in 1974; and Fuzzy Zoeller waving a white towel in 1984 when he thought Greg Norman’s dramatic finish was too much to overcome (they were merely tied and Zoeller crushed him in the playoff). But the wreckage at the final hole in 2006 left scars on several careers. Some of the biggest names in the game had a chance to win: major champions Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington made bogey; Hall of Fame members Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie both made double-bogey. A clutch up-and-down earns Australian Geoff Ogilvy the title.
14. 1966 — Arnold Palmer was seven shots ahead with nine holes remaining in the 1966 U.S. Open. It wasn’t a matter of if Arnold Palmer would win the 1966 U.S. Open, but by how much. Palmer’s play got sloppy after his focus turned to setting the tournament’s scoring record, though. Billy Casper, who played with Palmer in the final group, caught Palmer to force a playoff (shooting a back-nine 32 to Palmer’s 39), then staged another comeback in the playoff to win his second U.S. Open.
15. 1923 — Bobby Jones famously quipped: “There’s golf. And then there’s tournament golf.” At the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood CC, the great amateur was still trying to find his competitive legs. A disastrous double bogey on the 72nd hole forced a playoff with Bobby Cruickshank. They were still tied on the final hole of their playoff when Jones bravely hit a 2-iron from the rough over a pond to about 8 feet. He two-putted for his first major championship. The argument can be made that his clutch 2-iron shot gave him the confidence boost he needed to go on and forge the greatest amateur career the game has ever seen.
16. 1972 — Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer dueled it out for the final time at the 1972 U.S. Open. Palmer trailed Nicklaus by one shot after 14 holes in the final round, but struggled coming home. Nicklaus hits one of the best shots of his career and in U.S. Open history: a 1-iron on the par-3 17th hole that bounces once, hits the flagstick and stops a foot away for a tap-in birdie. He wins by three shots.
17. 1980 — In 1979, Jack Nicklaus failed to win during the PGA TOUR season for the first time in his illustrious career. He still hasn’t won as he enters the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol CC. He opens with a record-tying 63 to tie for the early lead. Late on Sunday, he is two shots ahead of Japan’s Isao Aoki, a future World Golf Hall of Fame member. At 17, Aoki hits his approach shot stiff, and Jack plays save to the middle of the green. As he always seems to do, Nicklaus come through with a clutch birdie putt. After he sinks another birdie putt on the home hole, he sets the all-time scoring record and matches Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan for the most U.S. Open victories (4). The giant, manual scoreboard near 18 says it all, “Jack is Back.”
18. 1976 — A 22-year-old Jerry Pate takes a one-shot lead at the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta CC with a birdie at #15 as John Mahaffey (who lost a playoff for the U.S. Open the year before) bogeys #16 and #17. After hitting his drive deep into the right rough, Pate delivers one of the best shots in U.S. Open history; he hits a five-iron from the rough over the pond protecting the 18th green to three feet of the hole. The remarkable birdie makes Pate one of 11 players to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in their careers.
19. 1914 — Twenty-two-year-old Walter Hagen birdied the 18th hole for the fourth consecutive round at the 1914 U.S. Open, but has to wait to see if the great amateur Charles “Chick” Evans can tie him. Evans, a local hero of the fans at Midlothian CC in Chicago, needs an eagle to tie at the short par-4 finishing hole. His chip stops 10 inches short. Hagen wins the first of his 11 major championships, and is on his way to making professional golf a glamorous lifestyle.
20. 1947 — Sam Snead is one of the all-time greats with a hole in his resume. He has another chance to win a U.S. Open in 1947 at St. Louis CC. Snead and Lew Worsham are tied after regulation, and still tied after 17 holes in the playoff. On the 18th hole, Snead is about to tap in his 3-foot putt for par when Worsham asks if perhaps he is away. After a Rules Official determines that Snead is indeed one inch further away, Sam, probably flustered by the proceedings, misses. Worsham makes his tap in to win. And Snead never wins the U.S. Open.