The 8 Most Memorable U.S. Opens Since 1970

Payne Stewart's dramatic 1999 U.S. Open win at Pinehurst is one of the most memorable in history. Credit: USGA

The world’s best golfers descend on Boston this week for the 122nd edition of the United States Open Championship.

Fifty-two editions of what is considered golf’s toughest test have been contested since 1970.

What follows are the eight most iconic editions of America’s national golf championship.

8. JACK’S BACK! (1980)

Jack Nicklaus entered the 1980 U.S. Open at 40-years old, and without a PGA Tour win in almost two years (the last one coming in July of 1978 at the IVB-Philadelphia Golf Classic).

There were whispers that the ‘Age of Jack’ was over. But Nicklaus opened with a record-tying 63, and never looked back, setting a 72-hole U.S. Open scoring record of 272. The iconic scoreboard at Baltusrol exclaimed, “Jack Is Back!”

The win was Jack’s 16th at a major championship, and his final U.S. Open title. Nicklaus went on to win Major No. 17, later that summer at the PGA.

7. JACK’S 1-IRON (1972)

The 1972 U.S. Open was the last time Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer battled it out in a major. Palmer, 43 at the time, trailed the 32-year old Nicklaus by a single shot through 14 holes at Pebble Beach. But Palmer faded down the stretch, and would never again truly compete in a major championship (with only a couple of Top 5s in ’73 and ’74).

Nicklaus went on to win by three strokes, capped off by his iconic 1-iron on the par-3 17th hole — that banged off the flagstick.

6. WATSON’S CHIP (1982)

By the 1980s Tom Watson had leap-frogged Nicklaus, and was considered the best player in the world (there was no OWGR back then ), but he’d never been able to pull off a win at America’s national golf championship.

In 1982, at Pebble Beach, 32-year old Watson was tied with 42-year old Nicklaus through 70 holes of the U.S. Open. Watson proceeded to hit his tee shot into the rough, along the 17th green.

The rest of the story, as they say, is history.

Watson’s caddie, the late Bruce Edwards, advised him to “get it close.” According to legend, Watson replied, “I’m gonna hole it.”

And, that he did!

The iconic image of the conservative Watson running around the green, pointing at Edwards, yelling, “I told you!” is one of the most memorable moments in all of golf.

Watson went on to birdie the 18th and win his first, and only, U.S. Open banner.

5. MILLER’S 63 (1973)

By all accounts, Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 at Oakmont is considered to be the best round in the history of golf.

There have been better scores and better performances, but for the moment in time (Sunday. U.S. Open. Oakmont.) it is as good as it gets. As Miller said recently, “There have been 59s shot, I shot several 61s in my career. But to shoot 63 at Oakmont on the last day to win by one is what makes the round what it is.”

Miller, who had just turned 26 at the time, was predicted by many to be the next great golfer.

It never happened.

Miller went on to compete head to head with likes of Nicklaus and Watson, for the next few years, but by 1977, Miller was a shadow of his former self, as he famously came down with the yips. He’d go on to win a couple of more PGA Tour titles through the early 80s, and even came out of semi-retirement to win the 1994 Pebble Beach Pro-Am. But for a generation (or two), Miller was best known as the blunt-talking golf analyst on NBC.

4. HALE’S RUN (1990)

One of the most iconic moments in U.S. Open history was the normally stone-faced Hale Irwin running around the 18th green at Medinah, high-fiving the gallery at the 1990 U.S. Open.

After stringing together three-straight birdies on Nos. 15, 16, and 17 to get to within one of the lead, Irwin needed a 50-foot birdie putt on the 18th to tie journeyman Mike Donald, and force a Monday playoff.

Irwin indeed hit the long bomb and famously took off on his jog. In the playoff, on Monday, Irwin beat Donald for his third U.S. Open title. At 45, Irwin still remains the oldest U.S. Open champion.

3. TIGER’S ROMP (2000)

This wasn’t so much memorable for any particular iconic moment (other than the scoreboard), but more so for the pure dominance of one Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods. His performance at Pebble in the 2000 U.S. Open was simply epic. It will go down, without debate, as the greatest performance in a major golf championship history.

It could be argued that it’s one of the greatest feats in a major sporting event.

For four days in June, on the northern coast of California, Woods made some of the world’s greatest golfers look like a bunch of chumps playing in a Thursday night beer league. Joel Cook of Pro Golf Weekly recently wrote, “He [Woods] was Ali/Ruth/Gretzky all rolled in to one,” while FOX Sports, called it “the single greatest golfing spectacle the sport has ever seen.”

Both are perfectly descriptive.

2. TIGER’S ROAR (2008)

The limping legend. The putt. On Sunday. At historic Torrey Pines. During the 2008 U.S. Open. On the 72nd and final hole. The setting was pure Hollywood.

Tiger Woods, who battled all week with a bum knee, limped up to the 18th hole on Sunday needing to make a 12-foot birdie putt to force a playoff on Monday with Rocco Mediate. As the putt rolls to the hole, Woods starts to back up as if attempting to pull the ball to the left. As soon as the ball disappears, a roar erupts from the Torrey Pines gallery, while Woods famously explodes in what is now considered to be one of golf’s most iconic photos.

Woods would go onto beat Mediate in the first sudden-death hole, following a full playoff round of 18, on Monday.

1. PAYNE’S PUNCH (1999)

Going into the 72nd hole at the 1999 U.S. Open, Payne Stewart, 42 years-old, held onto a one-shot lead over a 29 year-old Phil Mickelson. Stewart struggled off the 18th at Pinehurst, and was forced to lay up on his second shot. His third, though, landed 15 feet from the pin.

Mickelson putted first, and missed his long birdie try.

The stage was now set. Stewart needed to make the 15-footer for par to win his second U.S Open title, and avoid a playoff with a much younger Mickelson. And Stewart nailed it perfectly. The putt was like a laser – dead-straight, center of the hole. The finish was doubly iconic with Stewart’s famed punch to the air, and his touching embrace of runner-up Mickelson.

That fall, Stewart went on to play for the U.S. team in the historic Ryder Cup matches at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. America’s reigning national golf champion tragically died in a plane crash just a few weeks later – stunning the country and the world of golf.

Happy Father’s Day to all.

This story originally ran on June 2016.


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