A golf tournament is almost never won by a single shot unless it’s the final putt on Sunday. But a single shot can define a tournament and the player who hit it, and that’s especially true when it happens in a major championship.
Our perspective of great shots in the U.S. Open comes from the television age when millions can judge for themselves the impact of that shot. Some shots live on in the lore of the game and bear bringing up again.
Here is a selection of great shots that defined U.S. Open victories:
Arnold Palmer, 1960 — Cherry Hills
Back then the U.S. Open concluded with 36 holes on Saturday, and after the morning round Palmer trailed by seven shots. During lunch, sitting with two of the greats scribes of the game — Dan Jenkins and Bob Drum — Palmer ventured that if he shot 65 he could win. Palmer was irritated when neither writer agreed with him.
With a certain agitation, Palmer strode to the first tee. The first at Cherry Hills was a 346-yard downhill par 4. With a mighty lash with his persimmon driver, Palmer reached the green, two-putted for birdie and shot 65 to win his only U.S. Open.
Ben Hogan, 1950 — Merion
It had been nearly 16 months since Hogan had escaped death when his car collided with a bus. This was his first U.S. Open after a long, painful recovery process.
Late in the final round, Hogan held a slim lead but missed a short putt for par on the 15th and made another bogey on the 17th. Now he faced the toughest hole on the course, the 458-yard par-4 18th.
With well over 200 yards to the green, Hogan selected a 1-iron and put a Hoganesque swing on it. He reached the green, two-putted for par and won a playoff with Lloyd Magnum and George Fazio the next day.
The swing was immortalized by Hy Peskin’s photograph (at left), taken from behind of the follow through, and it remains one of the sport’s immortal images.
Ray Floyd, 1986 — Shinnecock
The back nine on Sunday at Shinnecock was the greatest cavalry charge in the history of the Open. A ton of great players — Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, the emerging Payne Stewart — were in the mix.
Floyd started the day three shots out of the lead, which was a decent position considering he opened with 75, and that only because of his superb short game.
He made a birdie on the 11th hole to create a nine-way tie for the lead. On the par-5 16th, he faced a third shot of 132 yards, uphill and into a slight breeze. He selected an 8-iron and as he started his backswing the motor-drive of a camera went off. He backed off, composed himself, and then struck a pure shot about 12 feet from the hole. He made that birdie for a two-shot lead, and two closing pars gave him a 66 and the victory.
Jack Nicklaus, 1972 — Pebble Beach
Nicklaus had the lead in the final round, but it was a tough, windy day and the finish at Pebble Beach could cause a catastrophe.
When Nicklaus got to the 218-yard par-3 17th, the championship was within his grasp but the wind was in his face. He hit 1-iron and would have been happy to be in the front bunker and try to get up-and-down for his par.
In a millisecond of his downswing he made a slight adjustment. He flushed it. The ball bore through the wind, landed two feet from the hole, hit the flagstick and stopped inches away. The tap-in for birdie gave him a four-shot lead and he went on to win his 11th major.
Tom Watson, 1982 — Pebble Beach
Watson came to the 17th in the final round tied with Nicklaus, who already had finished. Watson went with a 2-iron that he pulled slightly, the ball ending up in the gnarly rough just off the back left of the green about 20 feet from the hole. It wasn’t a pretty prospect.
“Just get it close,” his caddie Bruce Edwards said.
“Hell, I’m going to make it,” replied Watson.
He gouged his sand wedge into the rough and the ball popped out softly and rolled straight into the cup for a birdie and Watson pranced around the green. Another birdie on the 18th gave him a two-shot win.
Tiger Woods, 2008 — Torrey Pines
Woods was leading on the back nine, but made a bad bogey on the par-5 13th from the middle of the fairway, and another bogey on the 15th. He needed a birdie on the par-5 18th, but he drove into a fairway bunker and hit a fat 9-iron into the rough. He then dug a wedge approach to 12 feet right and a little above the hole. But he wiggled the slippery putt into the hole for a birdie, tying Rocco Mediate for 72 holes. Woods won in a playoff the next day.
Jerry Pate, 1976 — Atlanta Athletic Club
Pate, just 22 years old, held a one-shot lead over Al Geiberger and Tom Weiskopf as he played the 18th hole of the final round. He pushed his drive into the rough on the right, and while the lie was decent for Open rough, he faced a shot of about 190 yards over water. He went for the green, and his 5-iron was perfect, easily carrying the water and nestling 2 feet from the hole. His tap-in birdie won it.
Rory McIlroy, 2011 — Congressional
McIlroy was tearing up the course — he shot 65 in the opening round and never had to look over his shoulder. On the 214-yard par-3 10th in the final round he put an exclamation point on what would be an eight-shot victory. He chose a 6-iron, which was a lot of club for him, but the danger was water short. He flew the ball over the flag to an upslope. It stopped, then rolled down to within 8 inches for a tap-in.
Corey Pavin 1995 — Shinnecock
Pavin was never one of the biggest of hitters. The 18th at Shinnecock was a long par 4 for him and he stood on the tee with a one-shot lead over Greg Norman in the final round. His drive found the fairway, but he was still 228 yards to the hole, a shot that was semi-blind. Pavin struck a crisp 4-wood, running up the fairway to see the outcome. The ball rolled 5 feet from the hole. He missed that putt, but his par was good enough for the win.
Bobby Jones, 1923 — Inwood
The legend of Jones began at Inwood Country Club in the 1923 Open. An amateur just 21 years old, Jones was poised to become a major force in the game.
After the third round Jones held a three-shot lead, but he played poorly in the fourth round and ended up in playoff the next day with Bobby Cruickshank.
They were tied playing the par-4 18th. Both players drove into the rough. Cruickshank chose to lay up, but Jones chose a 2-iron from about 200 yards and went for the green, the ball ending up 8 feet from the cup. He missed the putt but his par was good enough for his first Open victory.