The U.S. Open plays at Oakmont for the first time since 2007. Let’s take a look back at past champions and what they had to survive to win golf’s toughest championship on golf’s toughest course.
The Silver Scot, Tommy Armour, won the first U.S. Open played at Oakmont in 1927 at 13 over par. The records back then are spotty but apparently he won in a playoff over Harry Cooper. In 1935 Sam Parks won the Open at Oakmont with an 11-over score of 299. I don’t know who Sam Parks is so let’s skip to the next winner. That would be the esteemed Ben Hogan, who in 1953 was the only player under par at -5 and finished ahead of rival Slammin’ Sammy Snead. Hogan, aka “The Hawk” beat The Slammer by five strokes on Sunday to secure his fourth U.S. Open title. Why don’t golfers have nicknames anymore?
When Tiger and Lefty (Phil Mickelson) retire soon that will be about it for cool golf nicknames. No player in the top 10 sports a nickname. I’ve been trying to get “The Sturdy Swede” for Henrik Stenson to catch on but I’m not sure he’s from Sweden. Bubba is actually Watson’s given Christian name for the patron saint of smokeless tobacco.
In 1962, Jack Nicklaus (the Golden Bear) won at Oakmont in a playoff over Arnold Palmer (The King). Arnie stood at the height of his popularity and Jack then began making his name in the golf world. That, and the fact they played near Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe made the crowd vociferously pro Arnie. Taunts of “fat boy,” “hey fatty,” and “fat Jack” followed Nicklaus all around the course in their 18-hole Monday playoff. People lacked creativity with insults (but not with the nicknames) back then. Nicklaus ignored the jeers and won by three strokes with an even par 71. He promptly celebrated by eating an ice-cream sundae out of the U.S. Open trophy.
In 1973 Johnny Miller shot a major record 63 on Sunday to overtake five legends of the game and win the first of his two major championships. He hit all 18 greens in regulation and needed just 29 putts over the 18 holes. Played under major championship pressure and at Oakmont, this is considered by many to be the greatest round of golf ever played. Johnny reminisced recently on his career while being feted at the Memorial tournament two weeks ago. One comment he made stood out among many interesting tidbits. He is convinced that at 12, he was one of the top five putters in the world. I believe him. He mentioned how in junior tournaments he would regularly have only 10 or 11 putts through nine holes. Miller is now the best golf analyst in the game for NBC but unfortunately will not be working with Fox taking over the coverage in 2015.
In 1983 Vietnam vet Larry Nelson edged out defending champion Tom Watson for the second of his three major titles. Nelson only took up the game at age 21 after coming home from the war. He broke 100 the first time he played 18 holes and broke 70 within nine months. Nelson attributed his calm play under pressure to having survived walking point in the jungle surrounded by North Vietnamese. The first tee at Oakmont pales in comparison. This is an incredible interview by Guy Yocum with Nelson. It includes a hilarious story of Nelson playing a mini tour event and not knowing golf rules or etiquette. “So, I go onto a hazard and start throwing out rocks, sticks and stuff so I could hit the ball [completely against the rules]. My playing partner comes over and stands there stunned. I start to pick up a leaf and ask, ‘Can I move this leaf?’ He stared at me for a minute and said, ‘If you move that leaf, you’ll be lying 12.’”
In 1994, a relative unknown named Ernie Els prevailed in a playoff over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts. Right there in that group you can see three completely different types of players succeeding at Oakmont. Els was a big hitter who could overpower a course. Montgomerie was a consistently straight driver who stayed out of the rough and Roberts was a great putter known as “the boss of the moss.” That’s the sign of a great course – differing skill sets have a chance.
“El Pato” Angel Cabrera won the last U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007. Cabrera held on to shoot 69 on Sunday and edge out Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. His winning score of +5 should be about the winning score this weekend if the course conditions stay fast and firm. Cabrera was the only player to break par twice that week on the course.
El Pato (the Duck in English), Slammin’ Sammy, The Golden Bear—again, where have all the great golf nicknames gone?