Conversation: US Open Venues

February 12, 2015

The US Open. Golf’s hardest test. Every year, the USGA sets out to create a venue that is so difficult that it tests the minds and patience of the greatest players in the game. According to the USGA, the goal “isn’t to embarrass the best players in the world.”

“It’s to identify them.”

Now, many golfers and golf fans have differing definitions of what’s the “best.” Everyone’s definition of what’s “best” is subjective. But “best,” at least in the context of America’s National Championship of Golf, can at least partially be quantified by how difficult the golf course is. So we here at the PF got thinking–what is the “best” (read, “hardest”) venue for the US Open?

Since the 1940s, the US Open’s winner shot +7 four times. But three of those events were in the 1950s, and the last one (the massacre of 1974) led the USGA to the conclusion that the course really was just too hard. (see Because of this, we use 1974 as the cut line for “modern” golf, as it represents a place where the focus of the USGA shifted just a bit, but enough to matter.

Importantly, the venues that hosted these high-numbered events (Merion, Oakland Hills, Olympic Club, and Winged Foot) have all seen US Opens since (Oakland Hills and Merion actually saw higher numbers in 1924 (+9, Oakland Hills) and 1934 (+13, Merion), but those were considered by the PF to be too old to include).

Since Hale Irwin’s win in the 1974 US Open at Winged Foot, there have been six US Opens where the winner had a score greater than even par. Those were
1975 – Medinah (Lou Graham, +3)
1978 – Cherry Hills (Andy North, +1)
2006 – Winged Foot (Goeff Ogilvy, +5)
2007 – Oakmont (Angel Cabrera, +5)
2012 – Olympic Club (Webb Simpson, +1)
2013 – Merion (Justin Rose, +1)

There have also been five instances where the winner’s score was E
1979 – Inverness (Hale Irwin)
1995 – Shinnecock Hills (Corey Pavin)
1998 – Olympic Club (Lee Janzen)
2005 – Pinehurst (Michael Campbell)
2010 – Pebble Beach (Graeme McDowell)

When reviewing the list of courses, several obvious ones jump out. Oakmont, being consistently known as a punishing layout, and Merion, recent site of the 2013 US Open that tested some of the best that showcased how a “short” (by TOUR standards) course could still be incredibly punishing. But it also bears mentioning that Olympic Club made both lists.

So, we looked back at some of these courses to see their history.

Medinah hosted twice since 1974 (just once before)
1990 – Hale Irwin, -8
1975 – Lou Graham, +3

Cherry Hills had only the one US Open in 1978 (twice before 1974)
1978 – Andy North, +1

Winged Foot hosted the 1974 massacre, and then once since, but notably has also hosted the PGA Championship (e.g., when DL III won his only major)
1984 – Fuzzy Zoeller, -4

Oakmont hosted the US Open 3 times since 1974 (and four times prior).
2007 – Angel Cabrera, +5
1994 – Ernie Els, -5
1983 – Larry Nelson, -4

Olympic Club has hosted 3 US Opens since 1974 (and twice before)
2012 – Webb Simpson, +1
1998 – Lee Janzen, E
1987 – Scott Simpson, -3

Merion hosted just two events since 1974 (although one of the three prior Merion US Opens included Ben Hogan’s famous 1-iron shot from the 18th fairway, which secured him a victory at +7)
2013 – Justin Rose, +1
1981 – David Graham, -7

of the “E” courses……
Inverness just had the one

Shinnecock has had 3
2004 – Retief Goosen, -4
1995 – Corey Paven, E
1986 – Raymond Floyd, -1

Olympic has already been covered

Pinehurst has hosted three times, but under grandly different course circumstances for each of the three, with MAJOR redesigns between all of them.
2014 – Martin Kaymer, -9
2005 – Michael Campbell, E

Pebble Beach
2010 – Graeme McDowell, E
2000 – Tiger Woods, -12
1992 – Tom Kite, -3
1982 – Tom Watson, -6

So, based on scoring alone…..there’s really no winner. All of the courses mentioned have had hard Opens and relatively easier Opens.

But winning score really can’t be used as a measure of how difficult the course was. For example, when Martin Kaymer won at Pinehurst, the only two other players under par were both at -1, and the next best player was at +1. In another example, Tiger Woods shot -12 at the US Open in 2000, but no other player was better than +3. And, it would be rather unfair to judge the 2000 US Open by Tiger’s (at the time) scoring record-breaking performance–literally the best golfer in the game playing the best golf of his career at the best time of his career.

Instead of looking at winning scores (which seem to be all over the board), let’s look at scoring average, as this more closely matches what would be an appropriate measure of difficulty.

Shockingly, the scoring average for US Opens is not an easily achievable statistic. For what we were able to find, the list is included below:

and, for the sake of preserving the data, it’s included in quote below

Year | Name | Course | Location | Average | Par | +/-
2014 | Martin Kaymer | Pinehurst Resort, Course No. 2 | Pinehurst, North Carolina | 73.23 | 70 | 3.23
2013 | Justin Rose | Merion Golf Club, East Course | Ardmore, Pennsylvania | 74.31 | 70 | 4.31
2012 | Webb Simpson | Olympic Club, Lake Course | San Francisco, California | 73.85 | 70 | 3.847
2011 | Rory McIlroy | Congressional Country Club, Blue Course | Bethesda, Maryland | 73.00 | 71 | 2.002
2010 | Graeme McDowell | Pebble Beach Golf Links | Pebble Beach, California | 74.98 | 71 | 3.979
2009 | Lucas Glover | Bethpage State Park, Black Course | Farmingdale, New York[N 1] | 72.93 | 70 | 2.9286
2008 | Tiger Woods (3) | Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course | La Jolla, California[N 2] | 74.73 | 71 | 3.725
2007 | Ángel Cabrera | Oakmont Country Club | Oakmont, Pennsylvania | 75.72 | 70 | 5.72
2006 | Geoff Ogilvy | Winged Foot Golf Club, West Course | Mamaroneck, New York | 75.98 1st round | 76.933 2nd day | |

When we examine the data available (and, I’ll admit, there isn’t much), Oakmont is far and away the most difficult course of the last 8 years. 2006 would be a great one to compare to 2007, but we don’t have enough data. Merion would be next at +4.31, and (as that round is in pretty recent memory) the players indicated as such during the tournament, with many complaining that it was “unfair.” By the numbers, Pebble Beach was harder in 2010 than Olympic Club in 2012–and, even with Tiger’s incredible performance in 2000, my guess would be that the numbers would support the 2000 US Open as being harder than the 2010 US Open.

However, just on gut, I personally have always believed that Oakmont is the quintessential US Open venue. It’s insanely long even by TOUR standards, has punishingly difficult hills, has insanely undulating and fast greens, and insanely long rough. And–according to the data–the numbers bear it out.

Any thoughts from our readers? LG?

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