The U.S. Open—the national championship of the United States—has witnessed more than 100 years of pulse-quickening drama. Combine the most challenging course setup conditions in golf, with the emotion of competing for such a prized title and it’s easy to see why lasting memories, both good and bad, resonate with such intensity. As always, to narrow it down to a top five, we employed a single criterion: To what extent did the memorable moment not only thrill us, but also move us emotionally?
Here, then, are the top five U.S. Open moments.
5. Hogan’s heroic 1-iron leads to a playoff win at Merion (1950)
Sixteen months after a near-fatal auto accident, Ben Hogan returned to U.S. Open competition at Merion, outside Philadelphia. Limping through the 36-hole final day, on weakened legs that could barely support him, Hogan somehow ripped a 1-iron to Merion’s 72nd green and two-putted to make a three-way playoff, on a course so difficult, that 7-over-par 287 led the way. Remarkably, he forged a 69 the next day to win it all, by four and six shots, over his respective opponents, Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio.
The occasion of the 72nd hole is commemorated by the most famous golf photo of all time, Hy Peskin’s shot for Life magazine showing Hogan from behind in perfect form, striking his famous 1-iron. Many felt that after his horrific car-meets-bus crash in February 1949 he might never walk again. In a three-way playoff, he ran away with the 1950 U.S. Open.
4. A tonic for Payne at Pinehurst (1999)
Best known for his velvety swing and fancy pants, Payne Stewart fought a stirring Father’s Day duel in 1999 with Phil Mickelson, whose caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, sported a beeper that waited to buzz at any time, directing Lefty to dash off the course to attend the birth of his first child. After a see-saw tussle that involved Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, and some unusually misty weather, it all came down to the 72nd hole. Stewart drove poorly, so after playing partner Mickelson barely missed his 25-foot birdie try, Stewart had to hole an 18-footer at 18 to make par and seal the victory.
With wife Tracey looking on, Stewart stroked the putt home. Bedlam! He punched the air in ecstasy. He grabbed Mickelson’s cheeks and said, “Good luck with the baby. There’s nothing like being a father.”
Sadly, four months later, Stewart perished in a plane crash. More than two decades later, Payne Stewart is still missed—but he left some indelible memories to savor.
3. Watson wedges his way to victory at Pebble Beach (1982)
While playing Pebble Beach in the 1960s as a Stanford student, Tom Watson would fantasize that he and Jack Nicklaus were competing head-to-head for the U.S. Open title. In 1982, fantasy turned into reality. Watson withstood a furious Nicklaus final-round charge and when the Golden Bear finished at 4-under par, Watson needed two pars to tie. At the 209-yard, par-three 17th, Watson hit his 2-iron a shade too hard, and his ball landed in ankle-deep rough.
“Get it close,” said his caddie, Bruce Edwards. “Hell, I’m going to make it,” responded Watson.
He slipped his sand wedge underneath the ball, which popped out, took two short bounces on the green and rolled like a putt—directly into the cup. He danced around the green, pointing at Edwards, as if to say, “I told you so.” One last birdie at 18 sealed the deal, giving Watson his first and only U.S. Open win. But the real story was at 17. With one swipe of a sand wedge, Tom Watson told the world that, occasionally, schoolboy fantasies do come true.
2. The crowning of the king: Arnold Palmer charges at Cherry Hills (1960)
A dozen players had legitimate chances to win the 1960 U.S. Open, including 47-year-old Ben Hogan and 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus, but in the end, it was Arnold Palmer who was crowned king. With one round to play at Denver’s Cherry Hills, Palmer stood in 15th place, seven shots back of Mike Souchack. Over a burger at lunch, sportswriter pal Bob Drum told him he was too far behind to win. Seething, Palmer grabbed his driver at the 346-yard, par-four 1st hole, drove the green and two-putted for birdie. “Marching off the first tee, I felt a powerful surge of adrenaline,” said Palmer later. “I knew something big was happening. “He birdied five of the next six holes, going out in 30. When his final putt for 65 dropped, Arnie flung his visor toward his “Army” and flashed that trademark Palmer grin. Golf had its first hero of the television age—and the sport would never be the same.
1. Tiger digs deep to triumph at Torrey Pines (2008)
There may have been more important, historically significant U.S. Opens. None, however, was more thrilling than this one. Fresh off a surgical procedure to his left knee after the 2008 Masters, Tiger Woods had taken a two-month break from competitive golf when he arrived at Torrey Pines in suburban San Diego. Fans could see Woods clutching his left leg and wincing in pain, yet they were mesmerized by his Saturday performance that featured two eagles and a chip-in birdie in a six-hole stretch. Little did we know—because Woods didn’t tell us until the tournament ended—that he was actually competing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and that further, he had suffered a double stress fracture of his left tibia two weeks before the U.S. Open.
Woods came to the final hole needing a difficult 12-foot putt to tie Rocco Mediate and earn an 18-hole playoff. Down went the putt, up went Tiger’s fist. Pandemonium! The 18-hole playoff on Monday was anything but anticlimactic. From three down with eight to play, Mediate pulled ahead by one after 17 holes. Time for another Tiger roar. Smashed drive at 18, soaring 4-iron, two-putt birdie. Sudden death. A Mediate bogey ended things on the 91st hole. Tiger had his third U.S. Open crown. In a lifetime of Tiger Woods highlights, this was perhaps the Tiger Woodsiest.