With the U.S. Open coming to Chambers Bay in University Place in a few weeks, here’s our top five, in chronological order.
Picking the five most memorable U.S. Opens from the 114 that have been held is kind of like trying to read a 45-foot putt with multiple breaks:
Just when you think you have it settled in your mind, you start to second-guess yourself.
Unlike the putt, there is no right answer when it comes to which five U.S. Opens to choose. But in both cases, you can think about it for only so long before playing on.
These five did not make the list but were worthy contenders:
1962: Jack Nicklaus, 22, beats crowd favorite Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh.
1964: In the last year of the 36-hole final day (it was changed to 18 holes the next year), a severely dehydrated Ken Venturi ignored a doctor’s advice to withdraw after the morning round at Congressional outside Washington D.C., and persevered with salt pills to win.
1982: Tom Watson chipped in for a birdie from the rough on the 17th hole in the final round at Pebble Beach on the California coast, leading to a two-shot victory over Jack Nicklaus.
2002: Tiger Woods won, but this Open is most memorable for the venue, Bethpage Black, a New York State Park course. It was the first time the U.S. Open was held at a true municipal course and it has been dubbed “The People’s Open.”
2008: Playing on a bad knee that would require surgery, Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole of a Monday playoff. He made birdies on the 18th hole in the final round of regulation and in the playoff to stay alive.
So, with the U.S. Open coming to Chambers Bay in University Place in less than three weeks, here’s our top five, in chronological order. And if you don’t agree, well, that’s what mulligans are for.
Francis Ouimet’s improbable victory
More than 100 years later, this remains one of the more famous events in the championship’s history. Ouimet’s victory often is credited with popularizing the game in the U.S. And not even Hollywood could have made up a script such as this, a story so improbable it’s almost unbelievable.
The Open was held at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and Ouimet grew up in a working-class family across the street. He learned the game playing with one old club in his backyard, then began caddying at the course to make some extra money for his family.
When he received an invitation to play in the 1913 U.S. Open, he was going to decline because it was going to interfere with his day job. When arrangements were made for him to play, he ended up with 10-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery, who skipped school to attend the Open and convinced Ouimet right before the round that he should carry Ouimet’s bag.
A great story, but the 20-year-old amateur was an afterthought, with all attention on the favored Brits, including Harry Vardon, who had won the 1900 U.S. Open and owned five British Open titles at the time. But Ouimet finished tied with Vardon and Ted Ray. The sheer improbability sprung the event into the national headlines.
Huge crowds followed the three in the 18-hole playoff, which Ouimet easily won by five shots over Vardon and six shots over Ray. Ouimet became the first amateur to win the event and just the second American to win it since its inception in 1895.
When Ouimet died in 1967, Lowery, who had gone on to become a successful businessman, was a pallbearer at the funeral.
Mark Frost’s book, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” chronicled Ouimet’s remarkable story, and in 2005 Disney released a movie by the same name.
Hogan’s amazing comeback
Ben Hogan already was one of the better players in the world by the start of 1949, but it was what happened afterward that catapulted Hogan to legendary status.
That Hogan was able to play in the 1950 U.S. Open was miraculous enough after what happened Feb. 2, 1949.
He and his wife, Valerie, were driving through Texas when he was hit head-on by a Greyhound bus that had entered the wrong lane to pass a truck. Before impact, according to accounts, Hogan threw himself across Valerie’s lap to protect her.
She suffered just minor injuries and Hogan likely saved himself, too, as the car engine was pushed into the driver’s seat. Even so, he broke his collarbone, pelvis and ankle, and one of his ribs was crushed.
After his bones were set, Hogan nearly died from a blood clot. He spent 59 days in a hospital. It was not certain he would walk again. Golf seemed out of the question.
But through his legendary determination, he got himself back on his feet and returned to tournament golf at the start of 1950, 11 months after the accident.
He had yet to win in his comeback when he arrived at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia for the 1950 U.S. Open with bandages on his legs.
Despite being hobbled, he needed just a par on final hole of regulation — the difficult 18th at Merion — to get into an 18-hole playoff the next day.
Hogan did that, hitting a 1-iron approach that has become part of golf lore, then two-putted for par. He shot 1 under the next day, beating Lloyd Mangrum by four strokes and George Fazio by six shots.
Hogan won nine majors, with six coming after the accident, but the most memorable was the amazing comeback at Merion.
The convergence of stars
Jack Nicklaus was a 20-year-old amateur and was not yet known as the Golden Bear. He was leading with nine holes to play.
Hogan was past his best years at age 47 but found himself in prime position to become the only person to win five U.S. Opens.
But it was the king, Arnold Palmer, who at 30 was in the prime of his career, who ended up holding the trophy at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo. After winning the Masters two months earlier, Palmer shot a final-round 65 to pull off the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.
Palmer trailed leader Mike Souchak by seven shots entering the final round.
“I felt like if I made a lot of birdies, I still had a chance to win the U.S. Open, and that’s what happened,” Palmer recently said.
Palmer made birdies on six of his first seven holes, and Souchak faded badly. Soon, Palmer’s biggest threats were Nicklaus and Hogan.
Nicklaus held a one-shot lead after his Sunday front nine, but two three-putt bogeys on the back nine did him in and he finished second, two shots behind Palmer.
Hogan was tied for the lead with two holes remaining, including the par-5 17th hole. But on that potential birdie hole, Hogan hit a ball into the water and took a bogey. Needing a birdie on the 18th to force a playoff with Palmer, he found the water again and made a triple bogey.
Hogan did not finish in the top 10 again at a U.S. Open. Nicklaus would go on to win 18 majors, including four U.S. Opens. For Palmer, it was his only U.S. Open victory, but it cemented his status as the game’s most popular player for years to come.
The greatest round ever?
Johnny Miller entered the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at notoriously difficult Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh in 12th place, six shots behind four co-leaders that included fan favorite Arnold Palmer. Playing about an hour ahead of the final group, Miller played what many consider the greatest round in golf history.
Miller birdied his first four holes and made four more without a bogey. He remarkably hit all 18 greens in regulation and became the first player to shoot a 63 in a major. The 63 has been tied many times in majors but has never been bettered.
And when it was all done, it added up to a one-shot victory for Miller over John Schlee. Only five other players broke par in the final round.
“I’ve seen a lot of great rounds,” Miller later wrote. “But from tee to green that was the best round I’ve ever seen, and it was mine.”
Miller, now a longtime golf analyst for NBC, had two putts lip out so his score could have been even better.
“It’s not like I ran the table, chipped in, holed bunker shots and made 60-foot putts,” Miller told a reporter years later. “It was sort of an easy 63.”
Tiger wins by 15 strokes
Miller’s 63 might have been the greatest round ever, and Tiger Woods’ performance in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in California might be the greatest tournament in history.
Pebble Beach played particularly tough that week, and if it had not been for Woods, the winning score would have been 3 over, the highest in 25 years.
But Woods made the famous layout look easy.
Woods opened with a 6-under 65 to take a one-shot lead over Miguel Angel Jimenez, and eight players were within four shots of the lead. The big separation happened the next day when a 69 left him with a six-shot lead over Thomas Bjorn.
The lead was 10 shots over Ernie Els after a 71 in the third round, with the only suspense left being the final margin. A 67 on Sunday gave him a 15-shot victory at 12 under, the largest winning margin in major history. And he made it look effortless.
“I didn’t do anything special that week,” Woods later said. “Everything was on.”
Said Jimenez to reporters: “Tiger Woods was playing a different tournament after two rounds. After two rounds, I was playing against everybody else.”
Woods won the next three majors to be the reigning champ in all four majors (the “Tiger Slam”). He has won 14 majors, but none was more impressive than his 2000 romp at Pebble Beach.