Greatest Major Shots 1950–1989
With the U.S. Open returning there this summer for the first time in more than three decades, Merion seems an appropriate place to start this second instalment of our review of some of the greatest shots in the history of Major championships.
It was at this historic course on the outskirts of Philadelphia in 1950 that Ben Hogan played one of his most famous shots. It came at the 18th hole with Hogan needing a par to get into a playoff. After a shortish drive, he struck a 1-iron into the heart of the green, around 40 feet from the pin.
Now Hogan was one of the greatest ball-strikers there’s ever been, so what was the big deal? The circumstances surrounding the shot were simply remarkable. Just over a year earlier, he was severely injured in a crash when his car was hit head-on by a Greyhound bus. After extensive surgery and a hazardous recovery, during which he almost lost his life due to blood clots in his leg, Hogan had finally returned to the game. Amazingly, he went on to win the 36-hole playoff against Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. But it is the 1-iron at the 72nd hole that endures as the iconic symbol of this extraordinary achievement.
“The greatness of the shot lay not in the brilliance of the result—it lay in the determination of the man swinging the club,” wrote David Barrett in Miracle at Merion. “The determination of a man who had overcome near-fatal injuries to return to the highest level of golf when such a return didn’t seem possible. The determination of a man who could keep alive the dream of a storybook victory in the game’s most important championship, if only he could find it within himself to execute a sound swing under intense pressure on legs that were aching badly. The determination of a man who had practiced more than anyone, just so he knew he had a swing he could rely on. When the chips were down, on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open, Hogan executed the swing.”
Hogan had won the first of his four U.S. Opens in 1948 and had been unable to defend the title in 1949. After winning in 1950, he did so again in 1951 at Oakland Hills. This time the crucial shot came at the 10th hole in the final round. A recent redesign by Robert Trent Jones had produced a notoriously difficult course. After his drive at the 10th, Hogan was left with almost 200 yards to a back-right pin position tucked behind a deep greenside bunker pinching in from the right. Hogan hit a two-iron that missed the left edge of the bunker and then took the slope of the green round to the right. His ball finished two and a half feet away from the hole. That birdie set up a back nine of 32, which gave Hogan a two-shot victory. At the prize-giving, he said he had “brought this course, this monster, to its knees.”
U.S. Opens usually reward outstanding long-iron play and Ken Venturi, who was mentored by the ultimate ball-striker, Byron Nelson, felt as confident with a 1-iron as with any club in his bag. He proved it in sweltering heat at the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional when he hit the pin with the club at the par-3 16th hole during the final round. Jack Nicklaus did the same at the 71st hole at Pebble Beach in the 1972 U.S. Open on his way to victory, while in the Open Championship Tom Watson’s 2-iron to the final green at Royal Birkdale in 1983 will never be forgotten by those who saw it. It sealed an historic fifth claret jug for Watson.
One of the most famous drives of all time came at Cherry Hills in the 1960 U.S. Open. Arnold Palmer was seven off the lead going into the final round when, over a lunchtime sandwich, he was told by Bob Drum, his friend from the Pittsburgh Press, that he was too far back. Palmer disagreed. “The hell I am,” he said. “A 65 would give me 280, and 280 always wins the Open.” Palmer had failed to drive the green at the 346-yard 1st hole in each of the previous three rounds but now he let rip and smashed it to 25 feet. The charge was on. A birdie put him on the way to an outward 30, a final round of 65—and a two-shot victory.
Last year’s Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes showed once more the importance of finding the fairway at the final hole. Adam Scott put his tee shot in one of the many bunkers lurking to punish just such a lapse, made his fourth successive bogey and lost by a stroke to Ernie Els. But not so Tony Jacklin in 1969. His final drive at Lytham was a thing of beauty that bounded down the fairway with BBC television commentator Henry Longhurst exclaiming: “What a corker!” A first home victory for 18 years was the result. A year later, Nicklaus found himself in a playoff at St Andrews with Doug Sanders. After a tight tussle, Nicklaus played up the drama by removing his sweater and hitting his drive through the 18th green on the Old Course. A chip and a putt later, victory was his.
“He slammed a howling monster of a shot that blazed up to the high grass behind the green”
A couple of 3-woods from the fairway deserve a mention from the Open during the 1950-89 era. Roberto de Vicenzo, after so many near misses, was battling Nicklaus at Hoylake in 1967 when his second at the par-5 16th (the 18th for the 2006 Open and last year’s Women’s Open) soared over the corner of the internal out of bounds (the practice range) to set up a crucial birdie. A year later, Nicklaus was again the hapless playing partner at the par-5 14th at Carnoustie when Gary Player guided a 3-wood through the Spectacles, the pair of bunkers that hide the green, to two feet for a devastating eagle.
When it comes to the mid-irons, Palmer’s never-say-die attitude in the 1961 Open is marked by a plaque at what was then the 15th hole at Birkdale. He was in an awful lie, surrounded by thick rough and willow scrub, but thrashed a six-iron as hard as he could. Dave Marr said the divot resembled a “Caesar salad for ten”. Improbably, Palmer finished on the green and 15 feet from the hole.
One of the most romantic shots in Open history came on the 8th hole at Troon in 1973. Gene Sarazen, at the age of 71 and 50 years after his first visit to the course, holed in one with a 5-iron at the 123-yard “Postage Stamp.” Sarazen also birdied the hole the next day on his way to missing the cut.
In 1976, Jerry Pate won the first major in which he played as a professional. It was the U.S. Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club and from the rough about 190 yards from the 18th green with a long carry over water he hit a five-iron that pitched four feet from the hole and stopped two feet away. He had two putts for the win but only needed one.
The following year, Turnberry witnessed the “Duel in the Sun”, one of the greatest battles ever for the claret jug. For two days in blistering sunshine on the Ayrshire coast they went toe-to-toe but Watson arrived at the 18th hole leading by one. He hit a seven-iron to three feet but knew it was not over. Nicklaus was in thick rough beside a bush but somehow smashed an 8-iron onto the green. Not content with that miracle, Nicklaus, as Watson knew he would, holed from 35 feet for the birdie that kept his rival “honest” to the very end.
For British fans of a certain vintage, the greatest ever 7-iron was struck by Sandy Lyle from a fairway bunker at the 18th hole at Augusta National in the 1988 Masters. Lyle needed to clear the lip of the bunker, which his ball did by a fraction of an inch. It flew all the way to the back tier of the green before slowly, but inexorably, rolling back down towards the hole. It ended up about 10 feet away and one putt later Lyle was the first Briton to don a green jacket.
The previous year at Augusta, Larry Mize had become a hometown winner of the Masters by holing an outrageous chip from right of the green at the 11th hole. It came at the second extra hole of a sudden-death playoff and killed off Greg Norman’s hopes of winning a green jacket. This was not the only time the Shark suffered a cruel fate at Augusta, or elsewhere for that matter. Only the previous autumn, in the 1986 PGA Championship at Inverness, Bob Tway, who had trailed by four shots going into the back nine, holed out of a bunker in front of the final green to deny longtime leader Norman.
If those two daggers to the heart left a permanent scar on the Australian, Jacklin suffered something similar in the 1972 Open at Muirfield. Lee Trevino chipped in three times during the final two rounds but the most extraordinary of these came at the par-5 17th in the final round. Tied with Jacklin, Trevino was making a mess of the hole and was still off the back of the green in four. “Super Mex” was not at all happy with himself at throwing away the title and despite the difficulty of the shot, from rough to a slick green, he wasted no time. He had hit the chip before Jacklin had even marked his ball on the green but it ran straight, true and into the hole for a par. Jacklin was so shocked he three-putted from 15 for a bogey. “I had the heart ripped out of me,” Jacklin said. He never again contended at a Major.
Even Nicklaus found out what it’s like to be thwarted by a dazzling chip. On the 17th hole at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Watson chopped out of thick rough and straight into the hole to secure what proved to be his only victory in his national championship.
No review of this era, though, would be complete without mention of Severiano Ballesteros, and particularly Seve at the Open. His grand entrance onto the scene was marked with a stunning chip-and-run between the bunkers at the closing hole as a 19-year-old in 1976 at Birkdale. Three years later, he deliberately drove right of the 16th fairway at Lytham, got a drop from the parked cars, and floated a terrific 9-iron onto the green before holing from 20 feet for a three. In 1988, again at Lytham, there was the chip that so nearly went in from beside the final green to secure his third claret jug; but perhaps his finest moment came when he celebrated in fist-pumping style after sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the home green at St Andrews to clinch the 1984 Open. Pure, unbridled joy!