Of all of golf's majors, the US Open has arguably delivered the most contentious incidents in its storied history. George Cooper runs down his favourites
There’s no major controversy quite like a US Open controversy. Let’s dive in…
The one with the shock victory that no one saw
It was one of the biggest upsets in major championship history, and no one saw it coming. Literally.
Attempting to claim a record fifth US Open in 1955, Ben Hogan closed with a round of 70 at Olympic Club to sit in the clubhouse with a two-shot lead over Jack Fleck.
With Fleck a novelty in the golfing world – a former local pro who had only been on the PGA Tour six-months – and Hogan being, well, Hogan, the consensus was the tournament was now a foregone conclusion. Despite Fleck still having a few holes left, NBC decided to sign off on the broadcast, congratulating Hogan and declaring him the winner.
But Fleck hadn’t read the script, birdying two of his last four holes to force an 18-hole playoff with his title rival.
Trailing by one on the final play-off hole, Hogan hooked his tee shot into the deep rough, and the nine-time major champion needed three hacks to get his ball back in the fairway. Fleck would make par to seal victory and secure one of the most improbable upsets in major history.
Hogan would go on to have nine more top 10s but added no further major wins to his haul, while Fleck’s career ended with just two more PGA Tour titles.
The one they called ‘The Massacre’
Brutal, gritty conditions have now become synonymous with the US Open, typifying the lengths the USGA will go to create the toughest test in golf.
But in 1974 at Winged Foot, this ethos was taken to the extreme when the USGA responded to the low scoring from 1973 by setting up a near impossible test in New York. The fairways were narrowed, the rough was grown out, and the greens were so hard even Jack Nicklaus was rolling putts off the dance floor.
Conditions so severe it earned its own nickname, ‘The Massacre at Winged Foot’ had everyone from Arnold Palmer to Tom Watson complaining about the set-up as not one player broke par during the opening round.
Hale Irwin went on to claim victory with a 7-over 287, the second highest winning score in US Open history at the time, and, amid backlash, the tournament set a precedent for many US Opens to come.
Then USGA chairman Sandy Tatum perhaps summed it up best: “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify them.”
The one with the immovable movable obstruction
Winning the toughest test in golf requires the ultimate range of skill, patience, and strategy. But players also need an inch of luck on their side, which is exactly what Ernie Els got during his final round at the 1994 US Open in Oakmont.
Entering Sunday with a three-shot lead, Big Easy immediately made things hard for himself by hooking his opening tee shot deep into the rough. Els was forced to hack backwards onto the fairway, only to see his ball settle behind a TV crane. After some brief discussion with a rules official, the crane was deemed an immovable obstruction and Els was awarded a free drop away from the thick rough and with a much clearer shot into the green.
But here’s where the controversy lies. The crane was, in fact, not immovable at all, and had been moved constantly throughout the tournament, including several times earlier that day. Els would still bogey the hole and ended up in a Monday play-off with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts.
Els was eventually victorious after 19 additional holes, but many questioned his fortune the previous day.
The rules officially later admitted he was wrong, acknowledging that the crane was quite ‘movable’ indeed…
The one where the USGA lost control
If the US Open has taught us anything over the years, it’s that the organisers don’t like players making easy work of it. Well, at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the field started just a little too well for the USGA’s liking, with 11 players under par after the opening round.
Their response? Stop watering the greens and firm up the course.
But the USGA had apparently forgotten it was also 25 degrees in New York, so by the weekend Shinnecock had completely dried out. The final round was brutal, with bone-dry greens making it almost unplayable for even the world’s finest.
Things then got so severe that the greenkeepers were forced to take the unprecedented action of watering them with hoses in between groups. Their efforts did little to improve the playability, as the final round produced a scoring average of 79, with not a single player breaking even. Retief Goosen would eventually lift his second US Open title.
“It was a great deal embarrassing,” then USGA executive director Frank Hannigan said, while Tiger Woods said the organisation “lost control”.
“This is not supposed to be how golf is played,” he added.
The one with the ‘broccoli greens’
Yet another US Open marred in controversy over the state of the putting surfaces was the 2015 tournament at Chambers Bay. While Jordan Spieth enjoyed his week, claiming a second major of the year after Dustin Johnson’s three-putt meltdown on the 18th, the rest of the field were far than happy.
Multiple players ripped into the conditions of the greens, with Billy Horschel describing them as “the worst he had ever putted on”, while Justin Rose described it as being “outdoor bingo”.
But the most memorable quote came from Henrik Stenson, who, after taking 38 putts during his second round, said the greens were “pretty much like putting on broccoli”.
Only eight players finished under par all week, but the USGA remained adamant the course was in great condition.
The one with the unnecessary rules distraction
One player who isn’t shy of a major controversy is Dustin Johnson. Before his nightmare on the final green at Chambers Bay there was Whistling Straits, where Johnson mistakenly grounded his club in a bunker everyone thought was wasteland to receive a two-shot penalty and fall short of winning the 2010 PGA Championship.
Then, at the 2016 US Open at Oakmont, Johnson’s ball moved on the 5th green as he was approaching his putt. Claiming he had not touched it, Johnson checked with a rules official who was happy no infringement had been made.
However, having initially been cleared of any misdoing, one hour later an official notified Johnson that the incident was now under review. For a player riddled with bad luck in majors, this was hardly the distraction the American needed. Farcical scenes ensued as no one knew what was going on.
Johnson was eventually handed a one-shot penalty, dropping him to 4-under-par. Thankfully, for his sanity at least, DJ still triumphed for his long-awaited first major championship title.
The one where Mickelson lost his mind
There are some days on the golf course where we’ve simply just had enough. Phil Mickelson was having one of those days during the third round of the US Open in 2018, bogeying four of his last five holes as he approached the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills.
Faced with a 12-footer for bogey, Mickelson raced his putt past the hole. What he did next needs to be seen to be believed. Lefty inexplicably chased after his ball and, to prevent it sailing down a treacherous slope behind the flag, hit it while it was still moving.
A petulant Mickelson eventually made 10, walking off the green bizarrely pleased with his actions as he smiled at fans and gave that famous thumbs up.
Despite clearly breaking the rules, Mickelson ended up avoiding a disqualification on a technicality and was only handed a two-shot penalty, and the American was far from remorseful.
“I just didn’t feel like going back and forth, hitting the same shot,” he explained. “If somebody is offended by that I apologise to them, but toughen up.”
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