Over the past few years there has been one central theme to these debates; I win 90 percent of the time. As the late Walter Brennan used to say in the old western series, ‘The Guns of Will Sonnet’, “no brag, just fact”. This month’s topic – what was the greatest United States Open ever played? – is different. There can be no clear cut winner. All of our previous debates have been subjective, but none more so than this one because the menu is so large and diverse.
My worthy colleague has (unless he changed his mind) has selected Payne Stewart’s emotionally-charged 1999 Open at Pinehurst, punctuated by the fist pump and the cradling of runner-up Phil Mickelson’s face (“You’re going to be a daddy!”). Good stuff, great tournament, wonderful climax. I cannot definitively argue against it, but I will offer my own opinion of the greatest Open ever contested, one long before television came along to record the feat. I give for your consideration the U.S. Open of 1913, won by a 20-year old former caddy, Francis Ouimet, at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the two top ranked players in the world, in a playoff, on the same course where he had toted rich people’s bags and he did it with 10-year old Eddie Lowery carrying his bag. This would be like the Red Sox’ bat boy coming in to pinch hit in game seven of a world series and belting a game-winning grand slam, or a guy who sells beer at Gillette Stadium, taking off his apron and returning a kickoff for a touchdown to put the Pats into the Super Bowl. Nothing like this had ever happened before in Open history, has never happened in over a century and will likely never happen again. Certainly other amateurs, most notably Bobby Jones, won Open titles, but they came from the game’s gentry, none from the caddy shack.
Like Tiger Woods in 2008, Ouimet needed to birdie the 72nd hole just to get into the playoff, but unlike Tiger he didn’t need extra holes the next day. He crushed Vardon by five shots and Ray by six. He never did become a professional golfer, winning to U.S. Amateurs after taking the Open. All that being said I have other Opens that I think deserve mention for a variety of reasons. The Greatest Comeback in U.S. Open History: Arnold Palmer’s charge from seven shots back to win at Cherry Hills in 1960. Mike Souchak led after three rounds and Palmer was not even in the picture, but after lunch, where he was told he had no chance by sportswriter Bob Drum, an angry Palmer went out and promptly drove the par 4 first hole and kept his foot on the gas all the way around. Most Courageous Champion: Ben Hogan, winning at Merion in 1950, less than a year after suffering a near fatal car crash that left his legs nearly crippled. Hogan had been told by doctors that he would never play golf again. He not only played but won the Open the next year, in what was described as “The Miracle at Merion.” He had to play 36 holes on the final day on legs that produced agonizing pain. He then had to come back and play 18 holes the next day to win in a playoff. Also noteworthy, Ken Venturi winning in 1964 while severely dehydrated.
Best Round Ever: Without question it has to be Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont in 1973. Miller was six shots back when the day began. Nobody has ever matched that final day round. Tiger vs Rocco: The 2008 Open was great theatre; Everyman Rocco Mediate giving the emperor of the game all he could handle before bowing in sudden death after an 18-hole playoff had not decided the issue. Tiger was in agony with his knee the entire week, but he holed two lengthy putts on the 18th hole, first to get into a Monday playoff and then to extend it to extra holes. Most Memorable Shot: The 1982 Open at Pebble Beach where Tom Watson out-dueled Nicklaus to win his lone U.S. Open. Nicklaus had put on one of his infamous final round charges, birdying five straight holes at one time and finishing with a 69, good for four-under. Watson hit his tee shot on 17 into the left rough next to the green. A bogey, which was the likely outcome, would have sealed the victory for Jack. Watson pulled out his sand wedge and his long-time caddy, Bruce Edwards is reported to have said, “Get it close.” To which Watson replied, “Close hell, I’m going to make it.” The chip went down, Watson made his infamous dash and pointed toward Edwards. Best Celebration: Hale Irwin’s sprint along the gallery at the 72nd hole after holing a putt that got him into a playoff at Medinah. A special invitee to the tournament, Irwin won the playoff the next day, but his slapping hands with the people along the ropes is the most enduring image.
Tim Geary is a R.I. based free lance writer. He once won the Golf Writers Association of America Championship and celebrated by taking a nap.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?