12 U.S. Opens That Created The Modern Championship
June 02, 2014
From its inception five years earlier, the U.S. Open was contested mostly between American-based club pros who had immigrated from England and Scotland with none of the game's big names traveling from the British Isles to compete. That changed when British Open winners Harry Vardon (shown) and John H. Taylor came to stateside to play. Vardon beat Taylor by two strokes to win the title. Having golf's top players competing served to legitimize the nascent tournament.
1913/The Country Club
Beating legendary English pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, unheralded amateur Francis Ouimet's upset victory triggered what many describe as the "American century of golf." Putting golf on the front pages of newspapers throughout the U.S. helped popularize the game around the country. Within a decade, the number of Americans playing the sport had doubled.
Gene Sarazen won the first of his two U.S. Open titles, but the significance of this event came in the fact it was the first time the championship was played before a paying audience. The USGA charged $1 per ticket in the initial glimpse at the revenue potential that the championship held.
After a redesign of the suburban Detroit course by Robert Trent Jones, USGA executive director Joe Dey implemented what eventually became the accepted standard for a U.S. Open set-up: narrow fairways, thick rough and quick greens. After impressively shooting a final-round 67 to finish with a seven-over 287 total, winner Ben Hogan famously said at the trophy ceremony, "I'm glad I brought this course -- this monster -- to its knees."
The first officially televised U.S. Open was in 1954, but Arnold Palmer's dramatic comeback win in 1960 helped effectively usher golf into the TV era. Not unlike with Ouimet's triumph in 1913, the sport gained increased exposure to the masses after Arnie's victory, propelling its continued growth.
Playing on the Open's then-traditional 36-hole final day, Ken Venturi survived blistering heat and humidity to win the title. USGA officials decided starting the next year to play the championship's four rounds over four days, in part because of the physical toll playing the double rounds exerted on players, and appreciating the increased advertising, TV and gate revenue that might come from adding an extra day to the competition.
A year after Johnny Miller's record-breaking final-round 63 to win at Oakmont -- where nine players shot under-par scores for 72 holes -- USGA officials seemed went to great lengths to avoid a repeat. By firming up the greens and thickening the rough at Winged Foot, they reaffirmed their commitment to staging golf's most difficult championship. USGA president Sandy Tatum was asked if the association was trying to embarrass the game's best players. "No," he said. "We're trying to identify them." Hale Irwin won with a seven-over 287 in a tournament vividly chronicled in Dick Schapp's book "The Massacre at Winged Foot."
The USGA's desire to bring the Open back to the small club on the east end of Long Island for the first time since 1896 come with worries about the logistics of holding the Open at a small club on the east end of Long Island. To return to the classic course, the association decided to take the operation of the tournament entirely in house rather than split responsibility with the club as in previous Opens. The event went off successfully and brought the USGA into the business of being a full-service tournament operator.
USGA executive director David Fay's desire to bring the national championship to a public course became a reality with the event nicknamed "The People's Open." The size of the facility allowed the USGA to bring in a record amount in hospitality revenue and prompted a second Open to quickly return to Bethpage in 2009. The event's success also caused the USGA to award the Open to other public courses -- Torrey Pines in 2008, Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017.
Heat and humidity stressed several greens to their limit during Sunday's final 18, marring the championship as course maintenance workers were forced to periodical watered them throughout the round. That fall, the USGA executive committee outlined a 14-point philosophy regarding the course setup to ensure the integrity of the championship -- and its revenue potential -- would not be jeopardized in the future.
Two years after taking responsibility for Open courses, Mike Davis was lauded for his idea of adding flexibility to the setup by using multiple teeing grounds on holes and having graduated rough. Many considered this the optimal setup for the championship with players tested mentally as well as physically. The drivable par 4s became all the rage and was credited for added drama while maintaining the Open's overall level of difficulty.
For the first time, the USGA will hold the men's and women's Opens at the same venue in consecutive weeks. The move is made possible in part by the redesign of the No. 2 course by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which restores waste areas at the expense of long grass. It will be the first Open held at a course with little or no rough since World War II.