Ranking the hardest U.S. Open courses: Is Oakmont No. 1?

(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images for DC&P Championship)

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images for DC&P Championsh

The U.S. Open is considered the toughest test in golf. Oakmont, the site of this year’s tournament, is generally considered one of the toughest courses in golf. So if the toughest test in golf is being played on the toughest course, that must make this the hardest U.S. Open?

Players believe so. "I know that if you win a U.S. Open at Oakmont, you can go ahead and say that you’ve conquered the hardest test in all of golf," Jordan Spieth said earlier this month, "because this is arguably the hardest course in America day-to-day. It’s normally the hardest U.S. Open, at least what history shows."

(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

And while we have no doubt that if the top players and publications in the sport say Oakmont is the toughest course in the U.S. Open rotation (the Ocean Course, Pine Valley, the International and others are often considered tougher courses but the USGA doesn’t go to either for various reasons), then Oakmont is the toughest course in the U.S. Open rotation. Its bunkers are penalizing, the greens are actually slowed down for the Open and the angles off the tee and on approaches are vicious.

Still, it’s hard to quantify what actually is hardest. What’s easy to quantify is history, which Spieth mentioned in his last sentence. It’s the hardest Open test, he says, "at least what history shows."

(David Cannon/Getty Images)

Does it? We picked the 10 U.S. Open courses that have held three or more Opens since 1950 (sorry Bethpage and Torrey), either are currently in the Open rotation, or have hosted one in the past 20 years. Then we looked at the scores for each of those Opens and ranked the 10 courses based on a number of factors.

Why not just rank straight-up by score? Because scores can often be skewed by rain, wind, heat or a simple USGA decision to grow out the rough or make the greens roll faster on the Stimp. Also, the winning score can often be skewed (Tiger going -12 at Pebble in 2000 but winning by 15 is an outlier that shouldn’t penalize the toughness of Pebble Beach). To combat that, we’ve included an average median score for the top 10 of every tournament at the course, which actually is a far better indication of how the course is playing for the field. We also put more stock in recent scores because they suggest how the USGA sets up the course today. Onto the list:

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

1. Winged Foot (Mamaroneck, New York)

2006: Winning score: +5, Geoff Ogilvy (Median top-10 score: +8)

1984: Winning score: -4, Fuzzy Zoeller (Median: +3)

1974: Winning score: +7, Hale Irwin (Median: +12)

1959: Winning score: +2, Billy Casper (Median: +6)

Averages: Winning score: +2.5 (Median +7.25)

This is the place where U.S. Open hopes go to die. Remember Phil Mickelson on the 72nd hole back in 2006? Of the four championships played at Winged Foot, three have had a winning score over par. The other nine courses had eight combined. Hale Irwin’s +7 victory is tied for the highest since 1950 and is easily the highest of the past 60 years. Winged Foot might not have the reputation of Oakmont, but the scores don’t lie. The New York course gets another test soon, as the Open returns to Mamaroneck in 2020.  

(Getty)    

2. Olympic (San Francisco)

2012: Winning score: +1, Webb Simpson (Median: +3)

1998: Winning score: E, Lee Janzen (Median: +7)

1987: Winning score: -3, Scott Simpson (Median: +3)

1966: Winning score: -2, Billy Casper (Median: +7)

1955: Winning score: +7, Jack Fleck (Median: +15)

Averages: Winning score: +0.5 (Median +7)

The enduring image of Olympic is Payne Stewart standing over an eight-foot putt on the masochistic 18th green at the end of 1998’s second round, barely tapping the ball, then watching it narrowly clip the hole and gain speed as it rolled 25 feet downhill. Stewart would still be the clubhouse leader that day, but that bogey, instead of the sure par he should have had from such a close distance, was the difference between being in a playoff with Janzen and losing by one. (Stewart would of course win the Open the following year and then tragically die in a plane crash months later.) When the Open returned in 2012, the USGA had to assure golfers that the 18th green wouldn’t be the same – many changes and alterations assured that it wasn’t. In its five Opens since 1950, Olympic has only allowed four players to finish below par. 

(Fred Vuich/Getty Images)

3. Oakmont (Oakmont, Pennsylvania)

2007: Winning score: +5, Angel Cabrera (Median: +10)

1994: Winning score: -5, Ernie Els (Median: -1)

1983: Winning score: -4, Larry Nelson (Median: +3.5)

1973: Winning score: -5, Johnny Miller (Median: -2)

1962: Winning score: -1, Jack Nicklaus (Median: +3.5)

1953: Winning score: -5, Ben Hogan (Median: +6)

Averages: Winning score: -2.5 (Median +3.33)

Oakmont is the most-visited course in Open history but, up until 2007, the scores didn’t necessarily reflect the day-to-day difficulty of the course, almost as if the USGA didn’t want it to be a clown show, as some courses have been called in the past. This is a place that once had to have the greens slowed for an Open. (The stimpmeter was created at Oakmont, which tells you all you need to know.)

(Fred Vuich/Getty Images)

So, with the desire to get back to Open-level difficulty in ’07, the USGA set up the course so that it would be. The result: There were 436 rounds played and only eight were in the 60s. Angel Cabrera’s +5 is tied for the highest-winning score at any Open of the past 40 years (along with Ogilvey’s Winged Foot score). Oakmont figures to play as hard in June, hence its high position on our list. (It’d probably be No. 1 if we were rating courses based on the last time they’d hosted an Open.) But we can’t ignore what happened before 2007, when winning scores were consistently at four- or five-under, meaning the course played easier than most. (Three words: setup, setup, setup.) Oakmont is, of course, home to the most famous round in Open history, when Johnny Miller stormed from behind to shoot 63 on Sunday in 1973 to win on a day when the field shot 73. But, the little known addendum to that story: Lanny Wadkins actually stood on the 18th tee with a chance to birdie and tie Miller his own 63 to force a playoff. He would bogey. 

(Jamie Squire /Allsport)

4. Pebble Beach

2010: Winning score: E, Graeme McDowell (Median: +4)

2000: Winning score: -12, Tiger Woods (Median: +5)

1992: Winning score: -3, Tom Kite (Median: +4)

1982: Winning score: -6, Tom Watson (Median: -1)

1972: Winning score: +2, Jack Nicklaus (Median: +7.5)

Averages: Winning score: -3.8 (Median +4.46)

Tiger’s win in 2000 was, is and will always be, the greatest performance in the history of the sport. The score has been surpassed (by Rory in 2011), but on a course in which members of the gallery could have shot under par. The runners-up to Tiger at Pebble finished at +3, a mind-boggling 15 shots behind. A decade later, when McDowell won at even, the course actually played a bit easier than it had during Tiger’s win. Still, only one tournament has brought an over-par winner, but it’s a good one: the Golden Bear. How tough were Sunday conditions in his win at Pebble? Nicklaus slept on a one-stroke lead Saturday night, carded a 74 on Sunday and still won by three.

(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

5. Merion

2013: Winning score: +1, Justin Rose (Median: +5)

1981: Winning score: -7, David Graham (Median: -0.5)

1971: Winning score: E, Lee Trevino (Median: +3)

1950: Winning score: +7, Ben Hogan (Median: +9)

Averages: Winning score: -1.5 (Median +4.13)

Hogan, 16 months past a devastating car accident that, by all accounts, should have killed him, put together the bravest Open in history (even better than Ken Venturi’s dehydration win at Congressional and Tiger winning Torrey Pines on a broken leg). He finished regulation with his famous 1-iron shot, got to par, then shot -1 in the playoff to best his two opponents by four and six shots, respectively.

(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

For as difficult as the 1950 Open was, it amazingly produced a first-round 64 by Lee Mackey, a U.S. Open record that would stand until Miller’s 63 at Oakmont (which you may have heard about before). The difference is that Oakmont played far easier than Merion that year, with Miller winning with an overall score 12 shots better (relative to par) than Hogan, the same margin between the median top-10 scores of the two tournaments. By the way, that guy who shot the 64? He carded an 81 on Friday.

(STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP/Getty Images)

6. Pinehurst

2014: Winning score: -9, Martin Kaymer (Median: +1)

2005: Winning score: E, Michael Campbell (Median: +5.5)

1999: Winning score: -1, Payne Stewart (Median: +6 )

Averages: Winning score: -3.3 (Median +4.17)

If strength of winner was taken into consideration, Pinehurst’s would be a wash, with two multiple-time major winners and then Michael Campbell, a guy who rode his 2005 title to top-10 finishes in that year’s British and PGA, then got cut or withdrew in 16 of his last 21 majors (with his best finish being a T35 in the year of his title defense). Kaymer’s win, as the averages show, was one of those where his red number doesn’t tell the story. The German was just about perfect for the week, winning by eight strokes and going -9 in a tournament that saw just two other golfers finish under par.

(Stephen Munday/ALLSPORT)

7. Oakland Hills

1996: Winning score: -2, Steve Jones (Median: +1.5)

1985: Winning score: -1, Andy North (Median: +1)

1961: Winning score: +1, Gene Littler (Median: +6)

1951: Winning score: +7, Ben Hogan (Median: +14)

Averages: Winning score: +1.25 (Median +5.63)

Oakland Hills hasn’t hosted an Open in 20 years and was disappointed to be left off the 2022-2024 sites (which went to Brookline, Los Angeles Country Club and Pinehurst – it’s the first time ever for LACC). That it’s holding this year’s U.S. Amateur suggests it’s not completely off the USGA’s list, but if their name gets called again, it won’t be for years. Still, it’s time to go back to "The Monster," a course so tough that in 1951 no player broke par through the first three rounds.

Retief Goosen wins the 2004 U. S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, June 20, 2004. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

8. Shinnecock Hills

2004: Winning score: -4, Retief Goosen (Median: +5.5)

1995: Winning score: E, Corey Pavin (Median: +4)

1986: Winning score: -1, Raymond Floyd (Median: +3)

Averages: Winning score: -1.6 (Median: +4.16)

Shinnecock was the host of the second U.S. Open all the way back in 1896, where it’s safe to say winner James Foulis wasn’t using a club with a graphite/steel alloy shaft and cavity-backed, offset blades to hit a ball with a very soft compression ZG process core and ionomeric casing layer. It took 90 years for Shinnecock to get another Open and only nine players have finished under par in the last three tournaments.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

9. Southern Hills

2001: Winning score: -4, Retief Goosen (Median: +1)

1977: Winning score: -2, Hubert Green (Median: +4)

1958: Winning score: +3, Tommy Bolt (Median: +12)

Averages: Winning score: -2 (Median +5.66)

Goosen should have been at -5 if not for his gagged two-footer on the 72nd hole that forced him to go out and beat Mark Brooks in a Monday playoff for his second Open win. (Goosen shot even par in the playoff, ahead of Brooks’ two-over.)

(David Cannon/Getty Images)

10. Congressional

2011: Winning score: -16, Rory McIlroy (Median: -6)

1997: Winning score: -4, Ernie Els (Median: +2)

1964: Winning score: -2, Ken Venturi (Median: +6)

Averages: Winning score: -7.3 (Median +0.66)

Some observers were displeased – to say the least – with the USGA over the setup for the 2011 Open, which was won by Rory McIlroy in a record 16-under par. And unlike Tiger at Pebble, this was no outlier. Okay, he won by eight so it was kind of an outlier, but Jason Day finished at -8, four guys were at -6 and you had to shoot -4 to make the top 10. That score would have won seven of the last 10 Opens. There’s a general feeling in the D.C. area (Congressional is about three miles from where I currently type) that the ease of 2011 might cause Congo to not get another Open.)

That explains the displeasure. The rough was short, rain softened up the course (especially the greens) on Thursday night and then the USGA opted to play the course short on Saturday, after Rory was at -11 through 36 holes. Mother Nature did her part to make the course easier and the USGA didn’t do anything to stop it. The 18th hole was only 476, a distance I’ve played the hole at – and (spoiler alert) I’m not playing from the tips. But, again, if Rory doesn’t go insanely low, then Jason Day’s -8 is a very nice winning score but nothing too embarrassing for the Open, which will always be the toughest test in golf. That doesn’t necessarily mean a golfer can’t ace it every few years.