The US Open is known as the toughest of the four majors and it was once again last year as Tiger Woods on a bad knee was pushed to a playoff by Rocco Mediate.
The best part of the Open to me is the playoff format which is a full 18 holes and, if it’s needed, sudden death. Last year, after battling through the playoff, Tiger needed one sudden death hole to win by a single stroke to get past Mediate, who had a bad back going into the Open. For only the third time in U.S. Open history sudden death was used to determined the winner.
Thinking of that as this year’s Open gets set to begin at Bethpage Black on Thursday, I thought of the 10 most memorable playoffs in U.S. Open history (discounting Tiger’s 2008 win). In doing so it brought be back to the beginnings of my love for writing and sports history as I found Grantland Rice and the early history of sports.
So in chronological order here is my list.
10. 1903 Willie Anderson—Amazing Major Streak Begins
Anderson started a streak that has never been equaled in U.S. Open history as he needed a playoff to defeat David Brown in 1903. After a rainy final round on Saturday, Anderson and Brown finished tied and had to play the playoff Monday because of member play on Sunday.
The rain greeted them once more as they began to play the extra round. Though the play was sloppy, Anderson was able to beat Brown by two strokes.
Anderson’s win began a streak of three-straight Open wins from 1903-05, making him the only man to win three straight.
9. 1911 John McDermott—American Dominance Starts
The first 16 U.S. Opens were won by experienced British golfers who had come to America to work as professional golfers at American courses or traveled to America to play in tournaments.
In 1911, the first American-born golfer won the U.S. Open. John McDermott was able to beat Mike Brady and George Simpson in a playoff. The win by McDermott led to American’s winning 60 of the next 72 U.S. Opens.
To this day, McDermott is the youngest to win the U.S. Open at 19 years, 10 months and 12 days.
8. 1913 Francis Ouimet—The Most Important Win In American Golf History
Although McDermott was the first American golfer to win the U.S. Open, the sport did not take off until Ouimet won in 1913.
Golf was far from a main stream sport in America since there were few public courses and most access was restricted to players with admittance to private practice facilities. Another reason was the fact that the sport was dominated mostly by British players in the early years.
Ouimet was able to beat two heavily-favored British players, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a playoff.
Ten years after Ouimet’s 1913 upset of Vardon and Ray, the number of golfers in America nearly tripled and many more public courses were built, which spread the availability of the game to more people.
Ouimet’s win was immortalized in Mark Frost’s 2002 book and 2005 Disney movie The Greatest Game Ever Played.
7. 1939 Lord Byron—Comes Back To Win The Open
The only former player to ever have a PGA Tour event named after them was Byron Nelson and the event was the Byron Nelson Classic.
To win the U.S. Open, Nelson had to come back from five shots down on Sunday to force a playoff with Denny Shute and Craig Wood. Shute was eliminated after 18 holes, and Nelson and Wood would play another 18 for the championship.
After a 36-hole playoff, Nelson defeated Wood to win his only U.S. Open.
6. 1946 Lloyd Mangrum- The Forgotten Man Of Golf
While only 11 players have more PGA Tour wins than Mangrum, he seems to be forgotten in golf lore. Playing at the same time as such legendary players like Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan seemed to overshadow Mangrum’s reputation. He had only one major win, which was the 1946 U.S. Open.
After making par on the final two holes to force a three-way tie with Nelson and Vic Ghezzi, the playoff was on. The first 18-hole playoff saw all three players posting a 72. Mangrum nearly played himself out of contention in the second 18-hole playoff, making a miraculous 70-foot bogey putt on the par-5 ninth to keep pace.
Down three strokes after 11 holes, Mangrum was able to comeback for a two-stroke lead heading into the 18th hole. Nelson and Ghezzi made mistakes to allow Mangrum to catch and pass them. Even with a bogey on 18, Mangrum was able to win by a single stroke after 36 playoff holes.
5. 1950 Ben Hogan—Hogan Returns To Form After Accident
In 1949, Hogan and his wife Valerie traveled over a fog-covered bridge just East of Van Horn, Texas when the car they were in was struck head on by a Greyhound bus. Hogan threw himself over Valerie to protect her and saving his own life as well since the car’s steering column punctured the driver’s seat.
At the time of his accident, at age 36, Hogan suffered a double fracture to his pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots.
After the accident, Hogan was left with lifelong circulation problems and physical limitations for the rest of his life. Hogan’s’ doctors told him he might not ever walk again, let alone play competitively golf.
Before the accident, Hogan was not embraced by golf fans despite the fact he was one of the best players of his time. He shocked the golf world by announcing his comeback to golf 11 months after the accident. His comeback was complete in 1950 after going in to the final round down by two strokes and forcing a playoff.
Hogan was able to win the three way 18-hole playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio for his second U.S. Open win in one of the greatest sports accomplishments ever.
4. 1962 Jack Nicklaus—The Bear Beats Arnie For First Open Win
Although their rivalry truly started two years earlier when Arnold Palmer beat a 20-year-old Nicklaus in the in the 1960 Open, it was the 1962 Open that cemented it.
In Palmer’s back yard of western Pennsylvania and 10,000 fans cheering him on.
Heading in to the final round, Palmer led Nicklaus by two strokes but bogeyed on the ninth and on 13th hole. While a birdie by Nicklaus on 11 helped even up things, both players missed birdie putts on 18, forcing the playoff.
Nicklaus jumped out to an early lead in the playoff by four strokes only to see Palmer lay on one of his patented charges with birdies on 11 and 12 to close within one stroke.
Just as it seemed Palmer would charge his way to a win, he bogeyed on the 13th, a par 3, and his 10th bogey of the Open, ending any chance he had at winning. The Open win is the first of Nicklaus’ 18 major titles and he is the youngest U.S. Open Champion since 1923 when Bobby Jones won.
3. 1984 Fuzzy Zoellar—Zoellar Waves White Flag And Norman Sees Start Of Major Disappointment
The final round of the 1984 U.S. Open looked to be over early as Zoellar made the turn with a three-stroke lead over Greg Norman.
Norman, known as "the Shark," made a charge for the ages. He started with a birdie at 14; Zoellar, playing behind Norman, bogeyed the hole. Norman finished with three wild pars the most dramatic coming on 18. After his 6-iron approach sailed right of the green next to the grandstand, Norman made a cross country putt to save par.
Thinking that the putt Norman just made was for birdie Zoellar pulls out a white flag and waves it as a gesture of surrender. Later, Zoellar would say he knew the putt was for par and he went on to par 18 himself to force a playoff.
Zoellar wasted no time putting Norman away in the playoff as he build an early five stroke lead. Coming up to the 18th hole with the roles reversed, it was Norman who this time mockingly waved a white flag.
The ‘84 U.S. Open would be the first of numerous narrow defeats, unlucky breaks, and unfortunate collapses throughout Norman's career on American soil.
2. 1990 Hale Irwin—Fairy Tale Swansong In Last Major Win
In the twilight of his career, Irwin was given an exception to the 1990 U.S. Open and he did not disappoint. Down by four strokes heading into the final round, Irwin fired a 5-under 31 on the back nine.
The most spectacular shot of the day comes on the 18th hole as Irwin tried to force a playoff. Needing a birdie to compel a playoff, Irwin sank a 45-foot putt that sent the crowd to a frenzy and Irwin himself around the green high-fiving as if he had just won the Super Bowl.
The birdie on the final hole put Irwin in a playoff against Mike Donald, a journeyman on the PGA Tour. As the Open moved in to a playoff, it became a tournament of firsts. After playing to a draw after the 18 extra holes, the U.S. Open was settled on a sudden death playoff for the first time.
On the 19th hole, Irwin was able to make an 8-foot birdie to win the Open. Irwin became the first man to win the U.S. Open while playing under special exemption. He also became the oldest man to ever win the open at 45 years, 0 months and 15 days.
1. 1991 Payne Stewart—Lightning Brings Loss To The Open And Stewart Rallies On Sunday And Monday
The first day of the 1991 U.S. Open started out with clear blue skies, but rain soon moved in. Spectators either left the course at Hazeltine or took refuge under trees. Lightning struck near the tree at the 11th tee, killing one of the spectators.
The Open was also known for the two rallies by Stewart, the first of which came on Sunday. Stewart, identified by his traditional golfing attire, was a fan favorite. On Sunday, he was down by a stroke against 1987 Open champion Scott Simpson. Simpson could only muster a bogey while Stewart made par to force a playoff.
Stewart made his second rally of the Open during the playoff down by two strokes. The key moment came on the 16th, a par-4 that doglegged to the right. Simpson could only manage a bogey while Stewart was able to make a birdie on the hole to regain a stroke.
The very next hole, the par-3 17th, Simpson’s tee shot sailed into a pond for another bogey. This time, Stewart was able to make par on the same hole to pull even. On 18, Simpson would double-bogey the hole after trying to hole is his chip shot for par. Stewart would par 18 for the win as he went one under par the final three holes.
The win was the first U.S. Open for Stewart, who died in a plane crash after winning his second Open just four months earlier.
While one could argue there are better U.S. Opens in its long and grand history, it would be hard to argue with the past significance of most of the Opens on my list.
Each Open was not only contested in extra holes but most offered history-making moments. The hardest major from the beginning has stayed that way.