The greatest performances in U.S. Open history

Profile Picture: Josh Powell

September 14th, 2020

The 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York will be the 120th edition of the major tournament.

Over the years, we’ve seen some incredible performances, with winners coming from 10 different nations, as young as 19 and as old as 45. Sixteen victories have been wire to wire and plenty more have been final-round comebacks.

Every winner has a story, and every champion has their trophy, but some wins are more remarkable than others. Here are the five greatest performances in U.S. Open history.

5. Hale Irwin (1990)

Irwin was a two-time U.S. Open Champ in the 1970s and one of the world’s leading players in that decade. But in 1990, the 45-year-old American was considered past his peak. He wasn’t even meant to be in the tournament and got special exemption to enter from the USGA.

At Medinah, Hale went into the final round four shots off the leaders and took the course apart. He shot an electric 31 on the back nine, which included a 45-foot birdie putt on the 18th that sparked a victory lap.

But he had not yet won.

Mike Donald, who started the day on top of the leaderboard, forced a playoff, which was contested through 18 holes Monday. Donald had a two-shot lead at the 16th, but Irwin birdied and Donald bogeyed the 18th to force a sudden-death playoff. Irwin birdied the first and that was enough to give him a remarkable win.

4. Ben Hogan (1950)

Most people reading this aren’t going to remember Hogan’s win in 1950, but it is a story always worth retelling.

In 1949, Hogan was involved in a near-fatal car accident, which put him in the hospital for 59 days. He had a double fracture of his pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a fractured left ankle, broken ribs, and a critical blood clot.

Less than 16 months later, he was at Merion Golf Club and won the U.S. Open.

That’s incredible enough, but consider Hogan still had his legs in bandages, and back then, the final two rounds were played on the same day. Hogan had to play 36 holes on Saturday to force a three-way tie, and then played another 18 holes Sunday. Hogan won the playoff by four strokes to cap a remarkable comeback from death’s door.

3. Jack Nicklaus (1967)

I can’t compile one of these lists and not mention Nicklaus, who was a four-time U.S. Open champ. At the 1967 U.S. Open in Baltusol, Nicklaus went into the final round, alongside defending champ Billy Casper and legend Arnold Palmer, all a shot off the lead held by amateur Marty Fleckman.

Fleckman blew up and it soon came down to a battle between two gods of the game — Nicklaus and Palmer. After he bogeyed the second, Nicklaus knocked in a string of birdies and turned for the back nine with a four-shot lead.

The Open scoring record was in sight on the par 5 18th, with Nicklaus needing a birdie. Although he sent his drive into the rough and had to pitch out, Nicklaus pinged a 1-iron, 230-yard shot to almost 20 feet of the hole and sank the putt.

2. Rory McIlroy (2011)

Yeah, yeah. I’m Irish and biased. Deal with it!

McIlroy broke 11 U.S. Open records on his way to victory at Congressional, including the lowest 72-hole score and the lowest total under par (-16).

The Irishman shot a 65 in the opening round to give him a three-stroke lead, and a 66 Friday took him to 11-under. At one point during the second round, he was 13-under! His six-shot lead at the halfway point was a major-championship record and the lowest 36-hole total in U.S. Open history.

After that whirlwind, he shot a steady if unspectacular 68 Saturday to keep his grip on the lead, then shot a final-round 69 to become the fifth player in U.S. Open history to finish every round under par.

McIlroy won by eight strokes to demolish the field at the tender age of 22.

1. Tiger Woods (2000 or 2008)

I couldn’t pick between them, so Tiger gets the joint top spot for his wins in 2000 and 2008, for vastly different reasons.

In 2000 he was untouchable. He won the Open by a record 15 strokes — the greatest margin in any major. He ended on 12-under and was the only man in the field to finish under par. It also set up the "Tiger Slam," as he won the next three majors.

In 2008, though, he won the U.S. Open on one leg.

On day one at Torrey Pines, Tiger tore a ligament, was four shots off the lead, and in agony on every swing. But after a steady Friday playing through the pain, Tiger strutted his stuff on the back nine Saturday and gave himself the 54-hole lead.

Rocco Mediate put it up to Tiger on Sunday, and Woods needed to birdie the 18th to force a playoff. In the 18-hole playoff, Tiger had to do the same again and duly obliged to take it to sudden death on the par 4 seventh, which Tiger parred to win.

Imagine what he could’ve done with two legs!