The Supreme Champions of the US Open Golf Championship
They are an inspiration for many: the legends that dominated the U.S. Open Golf Tournament. Here we take a look at the Supreme Champions.
Walter Hagen, who won the U.S. Open in 1914 and 1919, once reportedly said: “Any bum can win the Open. You have to be good to win it more than once.” Now that’s more than a little harsh, but it’s also true when you run down the list of past champions. There are a few names that are surprising, to say the least.
But the same cannot be said for the players who won the Open more than once. To a man, they were among the finest players of their day and the five most successful are all members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. That can also be said for the two men who had the most runner-up finishes without a victory: Phil Mickelson with five and Sam Snead with four. True, it’s a dubious distinction but it does show that they performed well under Open pressure and conditions—sadly, not quite well enough.
So who are the best players in the history of the Open? It’s an exercise fraught with peril. The safest way to begin is to just go with the numbers.
Willie Anderson, a son of Scotland, was the first golfer to win four U.S. Opens and the only player to win three in a row. He also finished second once, third once, fourth once and fifth three times—all before his untimely death from arteriosclerosis at age 30. For good measure, he also won the Western Open four times in an era when it was considered on par with the major championships.
“Most likely, if Willie had lived longer, he would have set a record for Open Championships that would never be beaten,” said fellow Scot Alex Smith, who finished second to Anderson twice in the Open, while winning in 1906 and 1910.
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Anderson was a modest man but was also intensely proud. In the 1901 Open at Myopia Hunt Club near Boston, he struck a blow for equality that was unprecedented at the time. This was an era when club members regarded professionals as little more than glorified caddies so it was unthinkable that they might dine in the clubhouse—except in the kitchen with the rest of the hired help.
“Nae, nae, we’re nae goin’ t’ eat in the kitchen,” he said, taking a divot out of Myopia’s elegantly tended lawn for good measure. The members harrumphed around for a while and then erected a tent where the players could dine.
There would be no “Upstairs, Downstairs” stuff for Willie Anderson.
By acclamation, Ben Hogan was considered one of the ultimate “Open Players,” which is evidenced by his victories in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953.
Hogan was a supremely skilled shotmaker and was considered to have one of the game’s finest minds when it came to course management and discipline under pressure. A case in point was his performance at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, which he won in a playoff with George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum just a little over a year after the car accident that almost took his life and led many to doubt he’d ever compete at a championship level again.
In a 1978 interview, he told a writer that the toughest part about his iconic approach to the green on the 72nd hole of regulation play was trying to decide whether to hit his 1-iron or a 4-wood. When asked what club Hogan left out of the bag to accommodate carrying both his 1-iron and 4-wood, Hogan said his 7-iron.
“Why?” the writer asked.
“Because there isn’t a 7-iron shot at Merion,” he said.
Ben Hogan took course management to the nth degree.
Hogan’s victory at Oakland Hills in 1951 is considered a masterpiece. The course had been renovated by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and there was scarcely a thing about Jones’ changes the players liked—and they weren’t shy about sharing their feelings. When the dust had settled, Hogan went right to the point.
“I’m glad I brought this course—this monster—to its knees,” he famously said.
Ben Hogan brought a lot of great courses to their knees.
Incidentally, Hogan always insisted he’d actually won five Opens. In 1942, he won the Hale American National Golf Championship. It was conducted by the USGA and played under Open conditions. His winner’s medal even looked like those given in the Open.
The USGA politely disagreed.
Robert Tyre Jones Jr. won the Open in 1923, `26, `29 and `30. He is one of just five players to win consecutive Opens and he also had four runner-up finishes. For the record, he also won three British Opens, the 1930 British Amateur, and four U.S. Amateurs, the final victory coming in 1930 at Merion. That year he won the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs and then retired from competitive golf, having completed the “Grand Slam.” He was just 28. When he announced his retirement, The New York Times noted in an editorial that “With dignity, he quit the scene on which he nothing common did, or mean.”
Jones played in his first national championship at the 1916 U.S. Amateur, where he made it to the third round. He was 14. From his victory in the 1923 U.S. Open until his win in the 1930 U.S. Amateur, he won an astonishing 13 of the 20 championships he entered.
To this day, Jones is admired for his record but also for his deeply engrained sportsmanship. In the 1925 Open at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club, he addressed his ball in the deep rough and then backed off, calling a penalty on himself because the ball moved ever so slightly. No one else had seen it move. It didn’t matter. The penalty stroke set up a playoff with Willie Macfarlane, who won the following day. Later, a writer praised Jones for his sportsmanship.
“You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” he bristled.
Jones contracted syringomyelia in 1948 and spent most of his later years confined to a wheelchair until his death on December 18, 1971.
“As a young man he was able to stand up to just about the best life has to offer, which isn’t easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst,” wrote his friend, Herbert Warren Wind.
It is fitting that Jack Nicklaus and Bob Jones both won four Opens and had four runner-up finishes. And it is also appropriate that Nicklaus won the tournament Jones inspired, the Masters, a record six times.
Charlie Nicklaus, Jack’s father, had seen Jones win the 1926 Open at Scioto Country Club in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio. He deeply admired and respected Jones and he passed that along to his son.
As the young Nicklaus was closing out his hugely successful amateur career, Jones hoped he would follow his example and remain an amateur, but once the decision to turn pro was made, he was completely supportive.
Nicklaus loved Open set-ups and his game was supremely suited to the Open. He hit the ball tremendously long and high. His upright swing and sheer power helped negate the effects of the deep, thick U.S. Open rough. He was a brilliant putter, particularly on the firm and fast greens that the USGA aspires to. But just as important as all that was his mental toughness, singular concentration and steely resolve to develop a game plan and resolutely stick to it. Finally, he simply loved competition and never lost sight of the fact that golf, even at the highest levels, was still a game. The greater the pressure the better he played, and there are a precious few players you can say that about.
Nicklaus had plenty of rivals over the years. The great writer, Dan Jenkins, often compared him to the fastest gun in town, who managed to successfully take on all comers without flinching. Two of his greatest rivals were Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, who agreed when conferring their highest accolades on their friend: He is the greatest golfer in history.
They should know.
Simply put, Hale Irwin is one tough guy.
Irwin developed his golf game largely on his own, learning to play on a 9-hole course with sand greens in Baxter Springs, Kan. He was a two-time all-Big Eight defensive back at the University of Colorado, as well as the 1967 NCAA golf champion and an academic All-American. In other words, he could bounce back from a hit and still out-think you.
Irwin thrived on Open conditions and pressure and he has three victories to prove it.
He won his first Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in 1974—the aptly named “Massacre at Winged Foot,” where conditions were brutal even by usual USGA standards. He shot a 7-over-par 287 to win by two strokes. His second Open win came in 1979 at Inverness, where he beat former Open champions Gary Player and Jerry Pate by two strokes. His final victory came in 1990 when he beat Mike Donald in a playoff. He was 45 years old.
Irwin won 20 times on the PGA TOUR, most notably on demanding courses like Muirfield Village, Harbour Town, Riviera, Pebble Beach and Butler National. He possessed sound fundamentals, phenomenal mental toughness and intelligence, and a fierce competiveness. He also dominated the Champions Tour, winning a record 45 tournaments—including two U.S. Senior Opens—and setting the career earnings record with more than $23 million.
“I had to out-try and out-hustle everyone,” he said, explaining his success. “When I got onto the TOUR, I relished the harder courses because I just felt I was going to try harder.”
And those with two…
For the record, there are 16 players who won two Opens and they deserve a mention. They include (chronologically):
Alex Smith (with three runner-ups)
Gene Sarazen (who won the career Grand Slam)
Dr. Cary Middlecoff
Andy North (whose Open victories accounted for two-thirds of his Tour victories)
Curtis Strange (the most recent back-to-back winner)
Lee Janzen (whose second Open victory came at this year’s site, The Olympic Club)
Payne Stewart (who was tragically killed in a plane crash four months after his victory in the 1999 Open at Pinehurst)