It’s one of the biggest tournaments in world golf, and one that every professional golfer would love to win at some point in their careers. The US Open is behind only the Open Championship and the Masters in terms of importance, but currently awards the biggest prize purse of any of the four majors.
Since its establishment late in the 19th century, it’s been won by many of the greatest players that the game of golf has ever seen, and has produced some thrilling moments along the way. In this blog, we’ll take a look at the greatest US Open golf winners, the history of the tournament, and some of its standout records.
The history of the US Open
The US Open started with a one-day, 36-hole tournament in Newport, Rhode Island in October 1895, with Englishman Horace Rawlins triumphing out of a field of 11 players. From these small beginnings, the US Open has grown into a huge annual competition that features more than 100 qualifying tournaments around the world, and as many as 10,000 players trying to make it into the main event. Any player with a USGA Handicap Index of 1.4 or less is eligible to enter, and try to make it into the main field of 156 players.
The US Open counts as one of the four ‘major’ golf tournaments, alongside the Masters, the Open Championship and the USPGA Championship. Only five players have ever achieved the ‘grand slam’ of winning all four of them in their career: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Pre-war star Bobby Jones also managed to win all four of the major tournaments in the same year in 1930, which at the time were the US Amateur, the US Open, the Open Championship and the Amateur Championship. It was for this achievement that the term ‘grand slam’, used in several other sports today, was first coined by the media.
Over the years, the tournament has stood out from the other three majors for the notoriously difficult courses that it uses, with tight par scores, lots of open rough and many sloping greens. Further embellishing the US Open’s reputation as a hard tournament was the use of a full 18-hole playoff round in the event of a tie for first place. This rule was dropped after the 2017 tournament, in favour of a more TV-friendly two-hole aggregate playoff instead.
Matt Fitzpatrick claimed the 2022 US Open title at Brookline, becoming the fourth British golfer to claim the title in the 21st century, following Justin Rose (2013), Rory McIlroy (2011) and Graeme McDowell (2010).
Who has won the most titles in the US Open?
It’s incredible to think that the US Open has been run for nearly 130 years, but no golfer has managed to win it more than four times. Two of the four players who have won it four times did so before the Second World War: Willie Anderson (1901, and three in a row from 1903-05), and Bobby Jones (1923, 1926, 1929-30). The third, Ben Hogan, picked up his four titles in the space of just six years shortly after the war (1948, 1950-51 and 1953). This was despite Hogan nearly dying and suffering permanent injuries in a car crash in 1949.
But the last of the four, and undoubtedly the most famous, is the Golden Bear himself: Jack Nicklaus. His 1962 success was his first win as a professional, achieved at Oakmont at the age of just 22. He followed it up with a four-stroke win over Arnold Palmer at Baltusrol in 1967, a three-stroke success at Pebble Beach in 1972, and a then-tournament record 272 to win again at Baltusrol in 1980.
Who are the most famous US Open golf winners?
After those four-time greats, there are many other legends of golf who have become US Open champion at least once. There are, of course, a number of star names missing from the list – most notably Phil Mickelson, who has finished second (or tied for second) on six separate occasions. His quote of “I am such an idiot” after throwing away victory on the final hole in 2006 remains one of the tournament’s iconic lines.
The latter part of Tiger Woods’ career has been marred by injury problems, but at times, even those ailments couldn’t hold back the greatest golfer of his generation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the last of his three US Open wins, at Torrey Pines in 2008. It was his first tournament after undergoing knee surgery just a few weeks previously, and despite still being in pain, he ground the result out. He tied with Rocco Mediate after four rounds, and tied with him again in the 18-hole playoff, but par was enough for Woods to win on the first sudden-death hole – the 91st of the tournament.
And as for his maiden win at Pebble Beach in 2000, the scoreboard tells the entire story: he won by an incredible 15 strokes from Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez. It remains the biggest winning margin ever recorded in any of the four majors.
Ulsterman McIlroy may have just the one US Open victory to his name, but that week in 2011, he set a record that stands to this day. He completed his four rounds in just 268 shots, three fewer than any other player has managed in any edition of the tournament. His score of 16 under par at the Congressional Club in Maryland also set the record for the lowest score in tournament history relative to par, a record that was equalled by Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills in 2017.
Over the last couple of years, young Spanish golfer Jon Rahm has established himself as the driving force in the game. At Torrey Pines in 2021, he became the first Spaniard ever to win the competition, claiming his first major title in the process. He did so in dramatic circumstances, making birdies on the 17th and the 18th in his final round to pip Louis Oosthuizen by a single shot. Two years on, the man from the Basque Country hasn’t looked back, and he added to his major collection by taking the 2023 Masters at Augusta.
Ernie Els’s first US Open win in 1994 was a marathon, taking 92 holes to complete. The South African went into a three-way playoff with American Loren Roberts and Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie. While Monty was dismissed by four shots over the 18-hole playoff at Oakmont, Els and Roberts tied again to force sudden death, which Els won at the second attempt. Three years later at Bethesda, Els thwarted Montgomerie once again, winning by a single shot and securing the second of four major tournaments in a long and glittering career.
One of the most popular American golfers of the 1990s, Payne Stewart won the US Open twice. His first was in 1991 at Hazeltine in Minnesota, where he beat Scott Simpson by two strokes in a full 18-hole play-off. His second win came eight years later at Pinehurst in North Carolina, where he avoided another Monday playoff by sinking a 15ft putt on the final hole to beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke. Sadly, just four months after that 1999 success, he was killed in a plane crash at the age of 42.
The great Tom Watson’s victory in 1982 is an all-time classic. On the crucial 17th hole at Pebble Beach, Watson faced a tricky shot from the rough, from which his caddy Bruce Edwards advised him to ‘get it close’. Watson’s reply of ‘hell, I’m going to sink it’ was followed by a sumptuous chip into the hole, giving him the lead and ultimately the win.
While Gary Player only won the US Open once, it was arguably the crowning moment of his career. His victory at Bellerive in Missouri in 1965 meant the South African completed his career grand slam, five months before his 30th birthday. In doing so, he became the first overseas winner of the tournament since 1927, and he had to work hard to do it: he beat Kel Nagle in a fifth-round playoff, on what was (at the time) the longest course in tournament history at nearly 7200 yards.
It seems incredible to think that Arnold Palmer has just one US Open title to his name: a phenomenal comeback win at Cherry Hills, Colorado in 1960, when he trailed by seven shots going into the final round. But he’s also just as famous for two of the US Opens that slipped through his fingers.
In 1962, battle was waged between Palmer and young upstart Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont, where the apprentice beat the master in a play-off, despite a partisan pro-Palmer crowd. And in 1966, he mirrored his winning performance from six years earlier: leading by seven at the turn of the final round, his form collapsed. This allowed Billy Casper to come roaring back and beat Palmer in the playoff by four at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Which US Open golf winners had the biggest winning margins?
As mentioned above, Tiger Woods’s stratospheric 15-shot victory in 2000 is the biggest winning margin ever seen in the US Open, or at any of the other major golf tournaments. The next biggest margin was recorded more than a century beforehand by Willie Smith, who won by 11 strokes at Baltimore in 1899.
Which US Open golf winners picked up the biggest prize payouts?
For becoming the very first US Open golf winner back in 1895, Horace Rawlins picked up just $150 (which is the equivalent of around $5500 today). Thanks to general inflation and the growth of golf as a professional, global sport, today’s winning players pick up substantially more.
The winner’s share of the purse hit five figures for the first time in 1959, when Billy Casper picked up $12,000 for his win at Winged Foot. Andy North took home the first six-figure cheque in 1985, earning $103,000 at Oakland Hills.
The first million-dollar purse went to Tiger Woods at Bethpage in 2002, and the prize money is continuing to rise: Matt Fitzpatrick won $3.15million for his success at Brookline in 2022. The total purse from that event was $17.5million, the largest ever awarded for any major golf tournament.
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