7 Memorable U.S. Open Champions
June 08, 2023
By Bill Dwyre
The U.S. Open is the closest thing to a minefield that a golfer will ever experience. The United States Golf Association makes it that way on purpose. The USGA calls it the ultimate test of golf. The players call it torture.
The winners of all this are the fans, especially those who go out to see it in person. And lo and behold, Southern California spectators will get their every-seventy-five-year chance. This year’s US Open, or tournament player blood-letting, will be at the famed and exclusive Los Angeles Country Club, June 15-18.
It is usually the best golf in the world played every year, mostly because it is usually the most treacherous. The Masters in Georgia might be more famous, because it is played at the same gorgeous Augusta National Golf Club every year, and because it always has a genteel air about it. The U.S. Open is usually about as genteel as a sledge hammer.
The British Open is foreign, more mysterious. There is nothing mysterious about the U.S. Open. It hits you right in the face.
Going to a U.S. Open is an opportunity for every weekend golfer who has spent hours in sand and high grass and behind trees and up to their knees in water, to watch multi-millionaire golfers, the best of the best, do the same thing. Get your tickets now.
The U.S. Open may be the greatest spectator sport ever. It is a pressure cooker, played on a deviously designed obstacle course, for large sums of money. The winner will get more than $3 million. Just making the cut will get you a decent down payment on a house. Pressure? Try taking that putter back from ten feet to win, with a new yacht jangling around in your brain.
Come and see it, local golf fans. Your only shot before this year was 1948 at Riviera. Ben Hogan won, and he was a man with steel nerves. They have called the course ever since “Hogan’s Alley,” and deservedly so. This year’s winner could spark a new nickname for LACC—Koepka’s Crypt? Speith’s Sanctuary? Dustin’s Domain? Rahmbo’s Ranch?
There are many things and people to look for if you manage to make your way out to LACC. The players are already famous and many became so because of the U.S. Open.
- UCLA’s Corey Pavin hit the best shot of his life on the last hole in 1995. His four-wood stopped five feet away, he knew he had won. Halfway up the fairway, he needed to stop, squat down for an instant and collect himself.
- Four years later, Payne Stewart sank his winning putt, thrust his fist forward and kicked one leg out behind him in celebration. They made a statue out of that moment.
- Rory McIlroy walked part of the last hole in 2011 with his father, when his win was more a rout than just a win. He had arrived in golf and still stays near the top.
- Justin Rose hit a five-iron approach shot on the last hole in 2013 from a spot right near where Hogan had hit one to win years earlier, and watched in joy and relief as the ball settled within two-putt range and he knew he would win. Hogan heroics, from the same place with the same thing at stake, had been done with a one-iron.
- Jordan Spieth, who had won the Masters earlier in 2015, won a duel in the U.S. Open a few months later with the much older and more veteran Dustin Johnson. Spieth was one group in front of Johnson, hit his second shot on the last hole, a par five, to within two-putt range and made the birdie to take the lead on sandpaper scratchy greens at Chambers Bay, Wash. Johnson was the only remaining contender. He did the same, reaching the green in two. But when he missed his birdie putt, the golf world started celebrating Spieth as the next big thing. And for a while, he was, winning the season-ending Fed-Ex Cup in ’15 and also the British Open in 2017. But his statue will be that of a golfer, holing out from a greenside bunker to get into a playoff in the John Deere Classic and tossing his club at his caddy in joy. Spieth won the playoff. He was 19 at the time.
- Then there is the underrated, below-the-radar Beau Hossler, who is a regular on the tour now. In 2012, at age 17, as a qualifier who would eventually go from Santa Margarita High School to the University of Texas to join Spieth, actually led the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco for a couple of holes in the second round. His caddy for that one was a friend of his dad’s, who had been in the delivery room when Hossler was born. Webb Simpson won that year, but Hossler announced he was around to stay. And he has.
- Do not forget Phil Mickelson, the once-beloved superstar from San Diego, who was born in 1970, when some golfers still played with brassies and mashies. Mickelson has won six major titles and dozens more tour stops. He actually won the 2021 PGA tournament just days shy of his 51st birthday. The only major title he has not won is the U.S. Open, where he has been second six times. He lost one U.S. Open when, in the lead, he hit a shot on the final hole off a sponsor’s tent. Mickelson recently took the money and ran to the LIV tour, sending his popularity down the tubes. But Phil is Phil and winning at LACC would get him invited back to lots of parties.
Which brings us to the LIV, a tour sponsored by Saudi Arabia, which pays its golfers so well it might as well just give them oil wells. Mickelson is the symbol of the revolt from the long-established PGA Tour, but LIV players are not hiding in desert sand dunes. In the last 15 years, current LIV players Grahame McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Koepka (twice) have won U.S. Opens. If a LIV player wins, especially if Koepka repeats his recent PGA title run, the beer will not taste as good in the PGA Tour hospitality tent.
Look for the current stars, Scottie Scheffler and Jon (Rahmbo) Rahm, to be out in front. Or look for another improbable win like Lucas Glovers’ in 2009 at an impossible-to-play public course in New York called Bethpage State Park. Glover won his only major in a monsoon and probably never felt a drop of rain.
The U.S. Open is 5,000 story lines, and that’s after they make the cut on Friday. It is the predictable and the improbable. It is sport at its toughest and most exciting.
Buy a ticket. Walk the course. Listen and watch for the pain and anguish. Unless you are 95 and went to Riviera when you were a teenager in ‘48, you can be among the firsts in Southern California to experience a U.S. Open in the heart of LA.
It is the chance of a lifetime. And if U.S. Open site selection history is any measure, you won’t get another one in your lifetime.
Bill Dwyre is former sports editor and sports columnist of The Los Angeles Times. He has covered seven U.S. Opens.
Article courtesy of SCGA partner, the LA Sports and Entertainment Commission