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Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Finishes in US Open Golf History

Mike DudurichContributor IJanuary 2, 2017

Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Finishes in US Open Golf History

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    The U.S. Open has been played 113 times, so chances are very good that there have been some exciting finishes—ones that brought unexpected and underachieving winners.

    Trying to pick the 10 best is a pretty formidable task.

    Here's my list of 10 U.S. Open finishes that caught my eye, but please add your favorite to the comments below.

10. Ernie Els Beats Heat, Wins Playoff (1994, Oakmont)

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    The Setup

    It had been a brutally hot week in Pittsburgh, one of the hottest U.S. Opens on record. Oakmont had played tough, and fatigue was a big factor for players and spectators.

    Ernie Els was pretty hot on his own, shooting a 66 in the third round. He also received a controversial ruling (later ruled incorrect) on the first hole of his final round.

     

    The Result

    Els couldn't maintain his advantage as the final round wore on. Loren Roberts could have won the title in regulation but missed a par putt on 18; Els did the same.

    So those two, plus Colin Montgomerie, headed into a Monday playoff, the first three-way playoff in a U.S. Open in 32 years. Montgomerie was eliminated in the playoff, and Els eventually won on the second sudden-death hole.

     

    The Historical Significance

    The victory was the first of four major championships Els would go on to win over the next 18 years. Sudden death had been first used in 1990 by the USGA and was used again in 2008.

9. A Game of an Inch for Sam Snead (1947, St. Louis Country Club)

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    The Setup

    Sam Snead needed a birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Lew Worsham, who began the day with a one-shot lead over Snead and Bobby Locke.

    Snead made birdies at 5, 6 and 15, but he bogeyed 17 to put him into the position of having to birdie the last, which he did from 18 feet.

     

    The Result

    Snead was in command with three holes to play, leading by two. But Worsham birdied 16, and Snead bogeyed 17.

    Both players had putts of nearly equal distance left, and just as Snead was ready to putt out, Worsham called for an official measurement. It was still Snead’s turn, but he missed the putt. Worsham made his, shot 69 and won the Open.

     

    The Historical Significance

    Sam Snead was never able to win a U.S. Open title, despite being one of the greatest players of all time. He finished second four times. The total purse was $10,000, with Worsham winning $2,000.

8. Hail Hale the King (1990, Medinah)

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    The Setup

    In the final round on Sunday, Hale Irwin played ahead of the leaders but was able to post a score. He drained a 45-foot birdie putt on the last hole to shoot 67 and get into a playoff with the unknown Mike Donald.

    When the putt disappeared, Irwin embarked on a victory lap, high-fiving spectators near the ropes around the green.

     

    The Result

    Donald took a two-shot lead to the 16th tee; Irwin birdied that hole. Both players made par on 17.

    Irwin made par at 18, while Donald couldn’t get his par putt to fall. They went to sudden death, and Irwin won it on the first sudden-death hole with a birdie.

     

    The Historical Significance

    Irwin became the oldest U.S. Open champion at age 45. It was his third U.S. Open title. It was also the first time sudden death was used to determine a U.S. Open (it would be used again in 1994 and 2008).

7. Tom Watson’s Famous Chip-In (1982, Pebble Beach)

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    The Setup

    As he reached the 17th tee at Pebble Beach, Watson was tied with Jack Nicklaus, who had finished ahead of Watson. Nicklaus had kept Watson in the game, missing birdie putts on the final three holes.

     

    The Result

    Watson chose a 2-iron for his tee shot that day, a shot that measured 209 yards into the wind.

    It was a touch long and finished over the back of the green in a bad lie in the deep rough. His 16-foot pitch hopped and rolled into the cup, setting off a jubilant dance by one of the game’s greats.

     

    The Historical Significance

    The victory snapped a streak of 10 U.S. Opens without a victory for Watson. The finish solidified Pebble Beach as one of the great U.S. Open venues.

6. Arnold Palmer’s Final-Round Charge (1960, Cherry Hills)

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    The Setup

    The 1960 U.S. Open brought together the past (Ben Hogan), the present (Arnold Palmer) and the future (Jack Nicklaus), and all three were factors in the event.

    Nicklaus and Hogan fell out of the game on the last nine on Sunday when their putters failed them.

     

    The Result

    Palmer sat down for lunch after his morning 18 holes on Sunday and was too far out of it at seven shots behind.

    He stormed away from his unfinished lunch, drove the first green at Cherry Hills and made the first of four straight birdies to start his round. He ended the day with a 65 and a two-shot win over Nicklaus.

     

    The Historical Significance 

    Palmer’s win was, surprisingly, his only U.S. Open title. He had won the Masters a couple months earlier, giving him half of the Grand Slam. But he lost the Open Championship to Kel Nagle by a shot the next month.

    Nicklaus, 20 years old at the time, was the first amateur to finish second since 1933, and his score of 282 is still the lowest by an amateur.

5. Payne Stewart’s Thriller at Pinehurst (1999, Pinehurst No. 2)

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    The Setup

    This was not only one of the most thrilling finishes ever, but a precursor to the tragic end of the career of one of the game’s greats.

    The final round on Pinehurst No. 2 began with Payne Stewart holding a one-stroke lead over up-and-coming superstar Phil Mickelson.

     

    The Result

    The young left-hander held the lead at No. 12, but he was tied by Stewart when he made a bogey on 16. 

    The man in the plus-fours and the Hogan-style hat rolled in a birdie on 17 and clinched the win with a par putt on the 18th.

     

    The Historical Significance

    Most importantly, the victory was the last of Stewart’s three major triumphs and his final win on the PGA Tour. Only 42 years old, Stewart died in a plane crash a few months later.

    There’s a reminder of Stewart’s triumphant pose just behind the 18th green, a statue of him thrusting his fist into the air and a leg kicked behind him.

4. Francis Ouimet Shocks the World (1913, The Country Club)

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    The Setup

    Francis Ouimet lived in a house across the street from the 17th hole at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

    His family was poor, and he began to caddy in order to earn some money. During that time, he taught himself to play and become the best high school golfer in Massachusetts.

     

    The Result

    In his first-ever appearance in the U.S. Open, Ouimet put on a spectacular performance, hanging with the best professionals in the game—specifically Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, with whom he found himself tied after 72 holes.

    In sloppy, rainy conditions the next day, Ouimet, defying all odds, knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt on 17 to clinch the title. The victory marked the first time an amateur had won the U.S. Open.

     

    The Historical Significance

    Ouimet’s victory, along with his continued success in the game, eventually earned him the name of “Father of American Golf.”

    When he won the U.S. Open in 1913, only about 350,000 Americans played golf, which was then considered elitist. In the next decade, the number grew to an estimated two million.

3. Ben Hogan’s Comeback Capper (1950, Merion)

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    The Setup

    There has been much written and spoken about the 1950 U.S. Open because of this year’s event being at Merion as well. Sixteen months before this U.S. Open, Ben Hogan had been in a severe automobile accident and almost died.

     

    The Result

    All of the leaders struggled in the final round, and Hogan, who started the day two shots out of the lead, had a chance to win before he missed a short putt and then made bogey at 17.

    Golf fans have all seen that famous photo of Hogan hitting into the 18th green. A one-iron that led to a two-putt par got him into a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio.

    The playoff was tight until Fazio made bogey on four of his last five holes and Mangrum took a two-shot penalty on 16, allowing Hogan to win by four after shooting a round of 69.

     

    The Historical Significance

    The tournament was given the name “Miracle at Merion” and was the second of Hogan’s four U.S. Open titles. Hogan finished his career with a total of nine major titles.

2. Johnny Miller’s Record-Setting 63 (1973, Oakmont)

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    The Setup

    Four players were tied for the lead after three rounds at difficult Oakmont: Jerry Heard, John Schlee, Arnold Palmer and Julius Boros.

    To put into perspective what was about to happen, only three players other than Miller managed to break par that day.

     

    The Result

    Miller birdied the first four holes and, after a bogey at eight, went on to birdie four of the next five holes. After 14 holes, Miller was in a tie for the lead and took it outright with a birdie on 15.

    He missed a birdie putt on 18 to shoot 62 and then waited until Schlee missed a 40-foot birdie putt to finish a shot behind. How do you shoot 63 at Oakmont?

    Miller did it by hitting all 18 greens in regulation and requiring only 29 putts on the ferocious greens.

     

    The Historical Significance

    It was no coincidence that the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot has come to be known as "The Massacre at Winged Foot." The United States Golf Association was not pleased with how Miller had dismantled Oakmont.

    Hale Irwin won that tournament at seven-over par, with Forrest Fezler second at nine-over. A 63 has been shot in the Open only three times since 1973.

1. Wounded Tiger Was Dangerous (2008, Torrey Pines)

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    The Setup

    A healthy Tiger Woods would have been a unanimous favorite to win at Torrey Pines. But he had a severely injured left knee, and the consensus was he’d have a tough time.

    And he did, struggling with journeyman Rocco Mediate for most of the tournament.

     

    The Result

    The two came to the 18th hole, with Mediate holding a one-shot lead after Woods blew a three-shot lead on the back.

    Mediate missed a birdie chance while Woods made a 20-footer, setting off a roar that resonated through the golf world. They played an 18-hole playoff evenly before Woods finally ended the struggle on the first sudden-death hole.

     

    The Historical Significance

    The victory at Torrey Pines was Woods’ last in a major coming into this week’s U.S. Open at Merion.

    Woods extended his streak of winning majors when holding at least a share of the lead after 54 holes to 14 straight. Woods and Mediate became the first golfers to post an under-par final score since 2004.

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