Ranking the 10 Greatest Performances in US Open History
Ranking U.S. Open performances is a bit like ranking Michael Jordan dunks or Mariano Rivera saves. They are all great—it’s the U.S. Open, for goodness' sake.
Still, it's often the manner of victory and the circumstances surrounding a win that make an Open performance stand out—not just the fact that the Open is the most important American golf tournament today.
There have been some amazing performances characterized by fantastic shots, superb strategies, historical coming-of-age moments and heart-stopping comebacks.
Since it began in 1895, the Open's best titles have been characterized by youth and experience, by one guy playing on one leg and another playing in funny pants, by rising stars, by nail-biting playoffs and by record-breaking victories.
After so many years, there are almost too many great performances to count. But here are the top 10.
No. 10: Billy Casper, 1966
This victory at The Olympic Club in San Francisco is notable not for who won, but for who didn’t.
Arnold Palmer held a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go. The title was his for the taking.
Then the unthinkable happened: Palmer collapsed. He shot seven over on the back nine, opening the way for the steadfast Casper, who parred his way to a playoff—which he won by four strokes.
Great putting usually wins on the Open’s notoriously speedy greens, and Casper—known as one of golf’s greatest putters—did not three-putt the entire tournament.
The victory proved that anything can happen at a U.S. Open.
No. 9: Rory McIlroy, 2011
McIlroy played the Congressional course with a vengeance, ultimately becoming the youngest U.S. Open champion—just 22 years, 1 month and 15 days old—since Bob Jones in 1923.
But that was only part of the story. Earlier in the year, he had led the field on the last day of the Masters, only to collapse on the last day by shooting an 80 and finishing in a tie for 15th.
The Open was his chance to prove to the world that his opening rounds at the Masters were not a fluke.
He did so by dominating the field and shooting a U.S. Open record 16-under 268, breaking the previous record by four strokes.
McIlroy took control of the tournament at the halfway point by shooting 65-66—a scoring record for 36 holes at a U.S. Open.
He never looked back.
No. 8: Hale Irwin, 1990
This win is all about Irwin’s reaction—which, as you can see above, produced one of the great victory dances in sports history.
While youth may have been served by McIlroy’s victory, it was Irwin—the elder statesman at 45 years old—who took charge of a very tough Medinah Country Club course 21 years prior.
Trailing by four strokes going into the final round, Irwin took apart the back nine by shooting a sizzling 31.
He capped his stellar round with a 45-foot birdie putt on the last hole that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
The two-time Open champ had closed a four-shot gap, putting him in a playoff with Mike Donald. Irwin then took his third Open title by beating Donald on the 19th hole of the playoff round.
No. 7: Payne Stewart, 1999
If these rankings were based purely on sentiment, the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst would be ranked No. 1.
Payne Stewart battled emerging star Phil Mickelson to win what would be his third major title—and his last PGA victory.
Stewart died in a plane crash just a few months later. His victory pose was immortalized in a bronze statue at the course.
Just a year earlier, Stewart had barely lost at the 1998 U.S. Open, and he came to Pinehurst on a mission.
He and Mickelson—who was still seeking his first major victory—exchanged the lead throughout the last day, until Stewart had a chance to close him out on the 71st hole.
It was there that Stewart, dressed in his classic knickers, dropped a perfectly played putt for a birdie and the lead. He clinched the victory with a par on the last hole, where he struck the dramatic pose that has become his legacy.
No. 6: Ben Hogan, 1950
There are comebacks—and then there is Ben Hogan’s comeback at Merion Golf Club.
Hogan came to Merion only 16 months after a near-fatal car crash that many thought would end his vaunted career. It was only his seventh tournament since the accident, and his legs were still bandaged. But the ever-tough Hogan was not to be pitied or held back.
At that time, the pros had to play 36 holes on Sunday—a stress test that was bound to hurt the ailing Hogan’s chances.
Instead, he took control of the course and the field, leading until the final day.
It was then that he made what many consider to be the most impressive shot in the history of golf. From the 18th fairway, Hogan smacked a 1-iron uphill and into the wind, reaching the green in two. He two-putted for par, earning a spot in a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio.
There was no stopping him; he won the subsequent 18-hole playoff by four shots for his second of four U.S. Open titles.
No. 5: Tiger Woods, 2000
Going into the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the largest margin of victory at any major championship was 13 strokes, a record set in the 1862 British Open.
So much for the old record; Tiger decimated it by shooting 12 under par and finishing 15 strokes ahead of second-place finisher Ernie Els—the greatest margin in majors history.
His victory set the stage for the “Tiger Slam,” as he won the next three majors and became the first player since Bobby Jones to hold all four major championships at one time.
These were the days of the "Tiger Show," when everyone—including his competition—came out to see just how many strokes Tiger would win by.
He started the tournament at six under par, built his lead to 10 shots going into the final round and completed the shellacking by breaking the tournament record.
In the end, Tiger was the only player in the field who was under par.
No. 4: Tom Watson, 1982
1982 was Watson’s only U.S. Open victory, but he sure made it count.
Not only did he win the event, but he beat archrival Jack Nicklaus—the preeminent player in the game at the time—in highly dramatic fashion.
Watson was leading the field when Nicklaus went on a tear, shooting five consecutive birdies in the final round to tie for the lead.
After exchanging the lead over the next few holes, Watson and Nicklaus were tied going into No. 17.
It looked to everyone like Watson had made a fatal error by hitting his tee shot into the deep rough on the treacherous par-three.
Thinking victory—not defeat—Watson proceeded to chip in for a birdie and the lead. He also birdied the final hole for the victory, often considered the most dramatic in Open history.
No. 3: Francis Ouimet, 1913
There are so many improbabilities about Ouimet’s win that it has become one of golf’s most legendary and beloved stories.
The U.S. Open is that unique tournament in which anyone who qualifies can play—including amateurs. In this case, an amateur not only entered, but won.
Twenty-year-old Ouimet grew up across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, MA, and had caddied there before. When he got a chance to play in the Open, he was so green that he didn’t even have a caddy. With an 11-year-old acquaintance carrying his bag, he set off to compete against two golfing legends: Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
His home course definitely worked in his favor, as he ended up tying Vardon and Ray in regulation—then beat both of the famous British golfers in a playoff.
Ouimet became golf’s first amateur to win the tournament—and the only player to win the Open on his first attempt.
No. 2: Johnny Miller, 1973
If we are talking about great golf performances, there are few that can match the near-perfect golf that Miller played on the final day at Oakmont.
If they had tracked greens in regulation back then, Miller’s would have read 100 percent on the final day.
That’s right; he hit 18 greens in regulation, en route to a then Open-record 63 and the win.
Miller truly came out of nowhere after shooting a 76 on the third day—ostensibly taking himself out of contention.
The beauty of the victory was that Miller was six shots back of four players—Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Jerry Heard and John H. Schlee—when he made his valiant charge.
No. 1: Tiger Woods, 2008
That's what Tiger was playing on after tearing his ligament on the first day at Torrey Pines while incurring a stress fracture that would hobble him throughout the tournament.
Tiger’s pain during every swing was so palpable that it was difficult to watch him play.
But play he did, with such grit that nothing could stand in the way of his 14th major title.
After the first day, Tiger was four shots off the lead, mired in 18th place. Not bad, considering that he was battling a serious injury.
During the second round, he showed that he could play through the pain, shooting 30 on the back nine to work his way into a tie for second place.
Tiger seemed to have taken himself out of contention on Saturday, shooting three over par through the first 12 holes. But he showed his teeth by completing a 33 on the back nine—including an eagle at No. 18.
For the 14th time in his career, he held or shared the lead after 54 holes at a major championship. But he was still limping down the course and cringing with every swing.
Sunday's round was up-and-down; Tiger needed a birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff, and he needed a great shot from 96 yards to get it close to the pin. He ended up with a 15-footer that he sunk in typical Tiger fashion, tying Rocco Mediate and forcing an 18-hole Monday playoff.
Woods and Mediate were still deadlocked after 18 Monday—meaning the U.S. Open would be decided by a sudden-death playoff. Tiger took control when Mediate hit his ball awry on the 19th hole of the playoff, and sank his par putt to win his 14th major title in the most dramatic way possible.
Soon after, Tiger had knee surgery that laid him up for six months. He has not won a major title since.
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