Par is venerated as a god at golf’s toughest test, the U.S. Open, where we’ve seen no shortage of player misery and over-par scores in the tournament’s 122-year history.
Golf’s most difficult courses, precisely configured by the USGA for maximum player misery: baked out, undulating fairways, foot-tall rough, and lightning-quick contoured putting surfaces. The U.S. Open is always a Herculean labor.
In the early years of the tournament, players simply weren’t as skilled and both the equipment and the balls were much more difficult to play. Hence, it’s not surprising that early U.S. Open-winning scores were in excess of 10-over par.
For our purposes, we’ll look at the modern era of steel shafts and balata balls, roughly since 1950 in compiling this list of the five most difficult U.S. Opens.
5. Oakmont 2007: Angel Cabrera: +5
Plentiful bunkering, thick rough, and the most diabolical greens on the planet made the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont a brutal affair. Only two players were able to break par in the opening round, and only eight broke par overall. The tournament scoring average Friday was nearly 77. Angel Cabrera made a brilliant par at the 72nd hole, and when Tiger Woods was unable to birdie, he claimed his first major victory.
4. Merion 1950: Ben Hogan: +7
Ben Hogan’s triumph at Merion in 1950 was one of the most impressive victory in all of sports. Hogan, who had his body crushed in a 1948 car accident, hobbled around Merion for four brilliant rounds and an 18-hole playoff to claim victory. It’s worth mentioning how difficult the suburban Philadelphia track was playing as the tournament progressed. Lee Mackey fired a tournament record opening round of six-under 64. The eventual winning score was +7. In other words, Merion’s East Course took no prisoners as the tournament progressed.
3. Oakland Hills 1951: Ben Hogan: +7
“I’m glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees,” Ben Hogan said after winning the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills outside of Detroit. No player broke par in the opening two rounds of the tournament. Hogan’s final-round 67 to win by two over Clayton Heafner stands as one of the greatest rounds in golf history. No other golfer finished at better than +9. Robert Trent Jones toughened up the course at the USGA’s wishes, beginning the practicing of “doctoring” Open courses that continues to this day.
2. Olympic Club 1955: Jack Fleck: +7
Yes, Jack Fleck, obscure club professional, beat Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic Club. Adding to Fleck’s “lightning in a bottle” narrative, Olympic played obscenely tough that year. Only four players other than Jack Fleck broke par all week. Hogan and Fleck were five strokes clear of the field, and the best the great Ben Hogan could manage in their 18-hole Monday playoff was two-over par 72.
1. Winged Foot 1974: Hale Irwin: +7
The so-called Massacre at Winged Foot yielded Hale Irwin’s first of three U.S. Open wins. The USGA had just seen Johnny Miller shoot 63 at Oakmont the previous year, and the governing body wasn’t going to allow similarly low scores at Winged Foot, and they dialed up things to 11 accordingly. Rough so long Sam Snead broke a rib playing out of it during a practice round, greens like cement. How tough was the 1974 U.S. Open? Nobody was under par at any point after the first round. 7-over 287 remains the highest score in relation to par to win a U.S. Open. Only two players finished south of +10, and the tournament lives in golf lore as the most trying competition in professional golf history.