9 Biggest U.S. Open Controversies
May 31, 2013
Olympic Club, 1955
Olympic Club has a long history of U.S. Open controversies, and it all began in 1955 when the course first established a reputation as the "graveyard of champions." Attempting to win a record fifth U.S. Open, Ben Hogan finished his final round with a two-stroke advantage over Jack Fleck -- a lead so daunting that the telecast ended proclaiming Hogan had won. Fleck, however, birdied two of the last four holes, including the 72nd, to force an 18-hole playoff. Trailing by one stroke on the 18th playoff hole, Hogan hooked his tee shot into a rough so deep (left) it took him three hacks just to get it back to the fairway. He would one-putt for double bogey to give Fleck the Open, capping one of the most improbable upsets in golf history. After 1955, the USGA took control from the club grounds crews for final say of the course conditions.
Winged Foot, 1974
"The Massacre at Winged Foot" has come to embody the lengths the USGA will go to make their courses "Open ready." In response to Johnny Miller's infamous 63 in the final round of the '73 Open, the USGA made the Mamaroneck track so difficult that not a single player would break par in the first round. Even the normally calm Arnold Palmer (left) would lose his cool. Hale Irwin went on to win with a seven-over 287 -- the second-highest winning score in relation to par of any U.S. Open after World War II -- but not before USGA Competition Committee chairman Sandy Tatum was asked if they were trying to embarrass players. "We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world," Tatu said. "We're simply trying to identify them."
Inverness Club, 1979
Quite possibly the most famous tree in U.S. Open history, the addition of the 15-foot "Hinkle Tree" along the 8th fairway at Inverness in 1979 is the only major course redesign to happen during competitive play at the Open. It was inserted after the first round because Lon Hinkle used a gap in the trees to play the 17th fairway into the par-five eighth hole for a birdie, prompting others -- notably his playing partner Chi Chi Rodriguez -- to follow suit. There is some discrepancy in how much it cost, however; most accounts say Dr. Bob Yoder (Iverness' greens chairman) paid $500 for the tree, though in an interview with Golf Digest, David Fay says he was asked to pay $120 for the tree.
Entering the final round, 24-year-old Ernie Els held a three-stroke lead over the field after a Saturday 66. But the young South African looked to give most of it back on his first hole on Sunday after he hooked his tee-shot deep into the left rough. Upon reaching his ball, it was clear an ABC camera crane was obstructing his approach shot and Els was awarded a free drop to a clear area, citing the crane as an "immovable object." The rules official would later admit he was wrong and that, in fact, the crane was quite "movable" -- not only had it already been moved four times that day, it was immediately moved after Els played through to cover the ninth hole. Els would still bogey the hole, but held on to force a playoff with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts, which he won.
Olympic Club, 1998
When it comes to images of dismay on the golf course, Payne Stewart's look of disgust on the 18th green during the second round of the 1998 U.S. Open is certainly one of the most iconic. While challenging pin positions are a staple of the Open, this placement -- residing atop a crest of the green -- ranks among the cruelest of all time. Throughout the day, players who failed to get their first attempt up the hill would often find themselves with longer second putts. In an attempt to push the limits of Open play, many felt the USGA crossed the line with this pin placement, which can best be summarized by the title of the YouTube clip of the Stewart incident: 1998 U.S. Open Mickey Mouse Golf.
Olympic Club, 1998
Unfortunately for Stewart, his run-ins with Olympic in '98 didn't end after the second round. Leading Lee Janzen by one stroke, Stewart stepped up to the par-4 12th hole and piped a perfect tee shot down the middle of the fairway, only to find his ball settled in a sand-filled divot. Stewart would hit his approach shot into the greenside bunker and walk off with bogey. To add insult to injury, he received a slow-play warning on the hole for his long deliberation of the shot with caddie Mike Hicks, and would end up bogeying the 13th hole as well en route to losing to Janzen by a single stroke. As a tribute to the late golfer, it's a local rule at the Payne Stewart Golf Club to play a lie in a sand-filled divot as ground under repair.
Southern Hills, 2001
The combination of Sunday pin positions and fast greens have led to more than a fair share of quirky putts at the U.S. Open, but 2001 was so severe it saw each of its final round leaders three-putt the 72nd hole. Much to the vocal dismay of the field, the ninth and 18th greens at Southern Hills were cut on slopes, leading to a procession of missed-putts. At the end of his final round Mark Brooks would three-putt his way out of the lead, only to watch the final pairing of co-leaders Retief Goosen and Stewart Cink follow suit. Cink missed the green long and three-putted from 15 feet for double bogey, while Goosen had 10 feet for birdie, but also three-putted to tie Brooks forcing a Monday playoff. Goosen would eventually win his first of two U.S. Opens, proclaiming, "It's been a long week. It feels like a year out here."
Bethpage Black, 2002
In 2002, Bethpage Black became the first public course to host the U.S. Open, and it held its own against the world's best golfers. One hole, however, had a little help. The par-4 10th played 492 yards for the Open, with the rough cut so that players would have to carry 260 yards just to make the fairway. Add rain and a driving headwind for most of the weekend, and the result was 4.498 scoring average. It proved to be an unfair advantage for long hitters like eventual winner Tiger Woods, as players like Mike Weir had little chance to reach the fairway. "I suspect probably half the field couldn't reach that [fairway]," he would say after a round that included a double bogey on the hole.
Shinnecock Hills, 2004
With 11 players under par after the first two rounds at the 2004 Open, USGA officials decided to make the track faster and stopped watering the course. Come Sunday, Shinnecock Hills was so dried out that the grounds crew was forced to take the unprecedented step of watering the greens in between groups, particularly a seventh hole that bordered on unplayable. "It was a great deal embarrassing," former USGA executive directer Frank Hannigan would say after the tournament. How embarrassing? 2004 was the second highest scoring Open at an average of 78.7, with only Phil Mickelson and winner Retief Goosen in red numbers.