The US Open has a history of throwing professional golfers into a cauldron of challenges, from lightning fast greens to impenetrable rough. It is the toughest major of the year, but how do you define ‘toughest’? There are several different criteria that can be used, from scoring averages to the number and volume of professionals’ complaints. Here’s a top 10 list that covers a broad category of difficulty
Erin Hills, presented golfers with the longest course in history. The course measured 7,845 yards in Round 1, dropping to 7,839, 7,818, and 7,721 over the following three rounds. It was a par 72.
Length alone, however, does not reflect difficulty. Brooks Koepka won at Erin Hills with a score of 16 under – the joint lowest score of all time – and, on the third day, Justin Thomas became only the sixth player in US Open history to score a 63. His 63, however, is the lowest ever score to par, at 9 under. 27 players out of 68, over the final two days, were under par. Compare this to the statistics below and Erin Hills come out as almost ‘easy’.
Wide fairways ensured competitors had freedom off the tee and the course had been softened by rain. The winds common to the region never appeared which meant the wide fairways accommodated big, even wild, driving. Koepka was seventh in driving distance (averaging 322 yards) but he also hit 88% of fairways (fourth in the field), which helped him hit 62 of 72 greens in regulation. That’s a remarkable 86 per cent and he led the field in that category.
The rough was tall, thick fescue, and harder than conventional US Open rough, but to find it you had to be a long way offline. Three players who did were Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day. They were the top three players in the world at the time and all three missed the cut.
The 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay will be known more for the quality of the greens than the quality of Jordan Spieth’s play. Those greens will be remembered as the worst to greet players at a US Open. The brown and lumpy patches that spotted almost every putting surface were as visible on TV as they were to the players.
The issue was that the greens were fescue but the fertile region of the Pacific North West is where poa annua grasses thrive. The unseasonably warm and dry weather of the previous months meant greens had to be watered heavily. At the same time the USGA were pushing for faster greens (12 on the stimpmeter) so they were cut, rolled and firmed up which, ultimately, had a detrimental effect. It allowed those native poa annua grass to invade as the fescues were damaged, leaving miscoloured, bumpy surfaces that vexed the players.
That meant greens varied in speed and smoothness from hole to hole and on large greens with substantial slopes that made putting and chipping a lottery. Still, as easy as it was to single out the greens for complaint, the top of the leaderboard contained eight players who are now major champions.
Ryan Palmer singled out the greens’ slopes, mounds and swales for ridicule. “Put a quarter in the machine and go for a ride,” he told USA Today after a practice round.
Early in the tournament, Henrik Stenson called the greens ‘borderline laughable’, before comparing the surfaces to putting on broccoli.
Ernie Els joined in: “The ball feels like it’s a stone. There is no thatch. When you touch the ball, it bounces. There is no roll.” Only eight players finished under par that week, with 21-year old Jordan Spieth becoming the youngest US Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.
There’s no need to list a year because Oakmont’s greens are notorious and feared by players every time the US Open swings into town… which is nine times. This is the course where the stimpmeter was invented (by Edward Stimpson Jr). Augusta National has greens running at 12 on the stimp; at Oakmont they ramp it up between 13 and 15. The difficulty comes down not simply to speed but to the firmness of the putting surfaces and the natural contours. The greens are originals, dating back to 1903, when Henry Fownes used the terrain as naturally as possible to create greens that continue to befuddle the best.
To emphasise their difficulty, Arnold Palmer had 10 three putts in 90 holes (he lost in a play-off to Nicklaus) during the 1962 US Open.
In the 2007 US Open, Tiger Woods (the runner-up to Cabrera) was similarly perplexed: “They are by far the most difficult greens I’ve ever played. I thought Winged Foot was pretty tough, Augusta is pretty tough. But both courses have flat spots. Here, I’m trying to figure out where a flat shelf is.”
The USGA has long pursued the goal of making its blue riband event the toughest golf test in the world. They’re not shy about it either, almost welcoming the inevitable criticism from the professionals. One former USGA president, Sandy Tatum, when asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the world’s best golfers, replied “No. We’re trying to identify them.”
At Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the first two days saw a reasonable level of scoring. After Round 2 there were 11 players under par with Maruyama and Mickelson leading the way on six under. The USGA, keen to protect their reputation for toughness, decided to make changes to the course. They stopped watering the course to make it firmer and faster.
This proved disastrous for competitors on the final day. The greens had become too fast, forcing the USGA to water some greens during play. This included the 7th green where players were unable to prevent balls from rolling off the putting surface. The watering meant the leaders faced easier playing conditions with the final five groups scoring 75.9 on average, compared to the field’s 78.7. The best score of the day was Robert Allenby’s level par 70, while a third of the field failed to break 80.
Retief Goosen’s final round of 71 gave him a two shot victory over Phil Mickelson. Remarkably, given the speed of the greens, Goosen had 11 one-putts in that final round.
“I think they’re ruining the game,” Jerry Kelly said of the set up and USGA.
They’re ruining the tournament. This isn’t golf. Period.
Kelly finished 40th on 17 over.
And since we’re on the subject of Shinnecock Hills and its difficulties, let’s not forget the 2018 Open, and Phil Mickelson’s moment of madness. During Round 3 he faced a downhill bogey putt on the 13th from 18 feet. He hit the putt too hard and then hurried to the other side of the hole and hit the ball again while it was still in motion. A two shot penalty was applied and he finished with an 81.
There will always be disagreements on this one. Par-4s of 500 yards will stir the conversation for most while the 247 yard par-3 3rd at Winged Foot, in 2020, will make any amateur quake. The ‘short’ hole played the hardest of any PGA Tour hole during 2019/20. In Round 4 the average score was 3.41. Bryson DeChambeau parred it three times and birdied it in Round 2.
But how can you ignore a finishing par-4 of 521 yards that produced an average score of 4.70 during the week, and gave up not a single birdie in rounds 3 and 4? Over the four days there were 207 bogeys and 54 double bogeys. The hole played the hardest on the PGA Tour for 2013. And it was on the 18th that the 2013 US Open was decided, as Mickelson made bogey and Justin Rose made par, to win by two. It was Mickelson’s sixth runner-up spot in the championship.
The hole offers a semi-blind tee shot over a quarry onto a downhill fairway that tilts steeply from right to left. The green is slightly dome shaped, compounding the difficulties of a long-range approach.
At Oakmont in 2007, the course set up was so tough that the field broke par only eight times during the tournament. That works out at just two players per day. Only one player broke par twice and that was the winner, Angel Cabrera, who finished on five over par (285). Playing to a par of 70 his scores were 69-71-76-69. The cut was at 10 over par.
Conditions were so penal that Tiger Woods, who lost by a single stroke, remarked that a 10 handicapper would be unable to break 100. Intriguingly, during the pre-tournament set up, Oakmont’s greens were so fast that the USGA instructed the club to slow them down.
Oakmont has held nine US Opens, the most of any course. Cabrera’s final score of 285 pales next to the same venue’s scores in 1927 and 1935, when the winning scores came in at 301 and 299, respectively.
Yes, Oakmont 2007 appears again. The US Open is renowned for having a course set up that includes deep rough which severely punishes golfers who stray offline. At Oakmont, in 2007, one player (albeit a 15 year old amateur) had to withdraw with a sprained wrist while Phil Mickelson wore a wrist brace after doing something similar during a practice round. He missed the cut. “It is absolutely dangerous,” Mickelson said. Several other pros had similarly choice words to say about it.
Winged Foot, in 2020, has also been singled out with golfers struggling to find their ball — let alone play a shot — when it strays even a foot off the fairway. The 2019 winner, Gary Woodland, had this to say after a practice session:
“I was chipping, my caddie was throwing me balls back to me and we lost a ball for about five minutes and it was right in front of me. We didn’t find it until we stepped on it. The golf ball can disappear pretty quickly.”
On an historical note, at the 1955 US Open at the Olympic Club, Ben Hogan took three shots to escape the impenetrable Italian Rye rough on the 18th hole during his play-off loss to Jack Fleck. The USGA were so concerned by the rough’s difficulties that they took over responsibility for the course set-up in 1956 for the first time… and have done so ever since. How successful they have been is up for debate.
In terms of scoring averages, the 1955 US Open had the highest of all, at 8.72 over par.
Payne Stewart called the back-left hole position on the 18th green “bordering on ridiculous”. The location of the pin during the second round caused the kind of carnage that makes golfers weep.
Payne Stewart tapped an 8-foot birdie putt that missed the hole and ended up sliding some 30 feet down the hill. Tom Lehman had a four putt that included an uphill putt which did a 360 around the hole and rolled back down the hill to where Lehman was standing. Worse, however, was Kirk Triplett’s long uphill putt: it stopped short of the hole, paused, and then started rolling back towards him. Triplett, in disgust, stabbed at the ball with his putter, forcing it to stop. He had already missed the cut but incurred a two-stroke penalty.
“The way the USGA set that hole up is unfair,” Lehman stated later. “All the guys I talked to feel the same way.”
And the USGA agreed. For later US Opens the slope was softened and that hole location was never used again.
Olin Dutra won at Merion with a total of 293. That was 13 over par. He won by a single stroke over Gene Sarazen. What the figures don’t tell you is that Dutra contracted dysentery before the tournament. He then got another bout of it on the night before the final day when 36 holes had to be played. He munched his way through sugar cubes during the day and came from eight shots back to claim his second Major.
Over the past 50 years the highest winning score belongs to Hale Irwin, who won at Winged Foot, in 1974, on seven over par.
There are golf clubs renowned for their difficulty and some of these courses prove particularly attractive to the USGA. Since the First World War, seven courses have hosted the US Open at least five times: Baltusrol, 5; Merion, 5; Olympic, 5; Oakland Hills, 6; Pebble Beach, 6; Winged Foot, 6; Oakmont, 9. You’ll find most of these mentioned above. Shinnecock Hills has hosted it four times.
The question of which is the toughest of them all may be influenced by weather conditions (the 1958 Open at Southern Hills was named the ‘Blast Furnace Open’ for the high temperatures (36C on the final day) and strong winds which saw a scoring average of 7.92 over par), but there are some courses that stand out as the toughest on the calmest of days.
If it came down to a straight up heavyweight fight there would be two contenders: Oakmont Country Club and Winged Foot’s West Course. Based on the number of times Oakmont is mentioned above (and its 200 bunkers haven’t even been addressed), it might well appear to be the winner… but Winged Foot has an even greater claim. It has hosted the event six times (1929, 1959, 1974, 1984, 2006, and 2020) and the 1974 US Open lays claim to the best nickname of all: ‘The Massacre of Winged Foot’.
Not a single player broke par in Round 1. Hale Irwin’s score of seven over par is the highest finishing score since 1963. The 2006 US Open at the same venue, however, ran it close, with Geoff Ogilvy winning on five over. Bryson DeChambeau’s stunning 2020 performance, when he won on six under par, saw him bring the course to its knees but he was the only player to finish under par.
Only three players, in six visits to Winged Foot, have finished under par: Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman were four under after 72 holes in 1984 (Zoeller won in the 18-hole playoff), while DeChambeau’s six under showed what is possible through sheer power.
Another interesting figure is the average four-round score of every player. Prior to the 2020 event, Winged Foot’s average score was 298.90 (280 is level par), second only to the other contender in this category: Oakmont (299.44).
Winged Foot has undoubtedly left deep scars on many players’ psyche. Both Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson must still have nightmares after the 2006 Open, when each double bogeyed the final hole to lose to Ogilvy by one stroke.
So Winged Foot’s West Course takes the title… but only just. Here’s what two of the greats had to say about it.
“I think Winged Foot is right up there next to Oakmont and Carnoustie as far as just sheer difficulty without even doing anything to the course,” said Woods, before the 2020 US Open.
When asked to rate several courses by difficulty, from 1 to 10, Jack Nicklaus rated Augusta, St Andrews, Oak Hill and Seminole at 8. Pebble Beach and Baltusrol were given a 10. Winged Foot? “11,” said Nicklaus. “Maybe 12.”
1951: Ben Hogan called Oakland Hills “the hardest course I ever played” following his seven over par victory in 1951. Only two players broke par all week with Ben Hogan’s sensational 67 the key number. He said: “I’m glad I brought this course — this monster — to its knees.”
1955: Sam Snead said of the rough at The Olympic Club: “The strongest man in the world can’t hit the thing 10 feet out of some of this grass.”
1970: Hazeltine National Golf Club was built on farmland and was only eight years old at the 1970 US Open. Jack Nicklaus dubbed the course “Blindman’s Bluff” due to all the blind shots. He opened with an 81 and said to the waiting media: “Pardon me while I throw up.”
Dave Hill, who came second, went further, saying the designer (Robert Trent Jones Sr) must have got the blueprints upside down. “They ruined a good farm when they built this,” Hill said. “They should plough it up and start over.” In 1978, they did just that.
2015: The 18th hole at Chambers Bay played as both a par-4 and a par-5 during the tournament. Jordan Spieth, the winner, was caught on microphone telling his caddie the 18th was “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life.”
One of the best sound bites from 2015 came from the Swede, Henrik Stenson. “It’s pretty much like putting on broccoli,” he said of the greens.
Rory McIlroy countered: “I don’t think they’re as green as broccoli. I think they’re more like cauliflower.”
The final word goes to Sam Snead, one of golf’s greats, but one who never claimed a US Open title: “You not only have to be good, but you also have to have two horseshoes up your rear end. You’ve got to be lucky to win the US Open.”