For most of us, golf is a constant struggle with the occasional highlight and par is very much our friend. Watching professionals on television usually feels like a different sport. But for one week a year, star golfers can be reduced to hackers, struggling to make pars and going from one bad spot on the course to another. Welcome to the US Open!

The third Major of the season is upon us as the players gather at the No.2 course at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and AMERICAN GOLF is on hand to bring a bit of flavour and history to what sets this tournament apart.

History of the US Open:

The first United States Open Championship was contested in Newport, Rhode Island in 1895 by ten professionals and one amateur. Staged over 36 holes in a single day, it was won by Horace Rawlins, a 21-year-old from England recently arrived to take up a pro’s job in the wealthy seaside town. Success brought him a trophy, a gold medal and $50 in cash.

35 years younger than the British equivalent, the US Open would grow to become one of the four most important in the golfing calendar – the Majors. Dominated in its early years by British pros who had moved over to the States, American professionals would soon come to cherish their national Open.

Penal courses:

Always played to a conclusion on the third Sunday in June (Father’s Day), the US Open can usually – unlike its British counterpart – rely on good weather. And with that guaranteed, that is where tournament organisers, the United States Golf Association, step in. The USGA does not hold back in setting up their courses to be as tough as possible – the players may not like it and are not slow to air their complaints, but the organisers are not bothered. Fairways are narrowed, while greens are firm and fast with brutal rough not far from the putting surface. Premium accuracy is a prerequisite and par is a good score on any hole. The USGA is not afraid to reduce the par on a course to 70 to make it even more challenging. A level par total across 72 holes usually puts a player in contention to win. In fact, on five occasions this century, players have won with an over-par score, most recently Brooks Koepka in 2018 when he finished the week one-over.     

‘Tin Cup’ tournament:

The US Open famously made it onto the big screen with Kevin Costner’s 1996 movie ‘Tin Cup’. Costner’s character Roy McAvoy failed to make the big time as a golfing prodigy and ended up running a driving range in the back end of nowhere. But during the film, Roy comes through qualifying to make the US Open and almost ends up winning the tournament. And that kind of Cinderella story is still more possible in this event than any of the other Majors. Back in 2012, Andy Zhang, a 14-year-old amateur from China, made it all the way through to teeing it up in the tournament. 

The US Open offers fewer exemptions to the top players – for example, winners only get a ten-year exemption – and there are far more spots open to qualifiers. At this week’s event at Pinehurst, 72 players will tee it up having come through sectional qualifying events, not far off 50% of the field. Over 10,000 players entered the tournament, with players initially competing at 109 local qualifying sites across the country leading to the 13 sectional qualifiers, with ten in America and one each in England, Canada and Japan. Now 156 players remain to begin the event for real on Thursday.            

Tiger Woods:

Eight years apart, Tiger Woods delivered two of the most famous performances in Major Championship history, and both in his national Open. In 2000, he obliterated the field at Pebble Beach to win by a staggering 15 shots. Woods was literally playing a different course. His 12-under total was the lowest to par in a US Open at the time, while the 15-shot gap was the biggest ever margin of victory in a Major. To think, Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second, at three-over par!

That perfection at Pebble Beach was the start of the Tiger Slam with Woods winning the Open, the US PGA and The Masters in the next ten months. There was another US Open success in 2002 at Bethpage Black in New York, but the physical strain of his athletic game was starting to take its toll as he reached the US Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego in 2008.

Across the week, it was obvious to anyone watching that Tiger was in trouble, as he limped between shots and winced after hitting every ball with severe problems in his left knee. But never has the phrase ‘Beware the injured golfer’ felt so apt. He led after three rounds, but had to battle all the way on the Sunday, eventually needing a birdie at the last to force a play-off with fellow American Rocco Mediate. The last thing Woods’ left knee needed was another 18 holes, but he returned on the Monday morning. For the second time, he required a birdie on the 18th to tie Mediate. For the second time, he nailed it. When Mediate bogeyed the first extra hole and 91st of the week, Woods was the last man standing. A third US Open was his. Two days later he underwent knee surgery and did not play again in 2009, underlining the herculean effort he had performed to win.

Jack and the boys:

Tiger Woods counts three US Opens among his 15 Majors, which puts him one behind the record. It’s no surprise to learn that Jack Nicklaus is one of four players to have lifted the US Open on a record four separate occasions. The Golden Bear shares that accolade with Scotland’s Willie Anderson, who won four times in five years between 1901 and 1905, the great amateur Bobby Jones and then Ben Hogan. In the last 20 years, only Brooks Koepka has won the US Open more than once as he went back-to-back (2017-2018), underlining just how ‘open’ this tournament is. We’ve had short hitters and long hitters, hot putters and players enjoying the week of their golfing lives in the last two decades. But all that really matters is coming good over four exacting days of championship golf.               

When British and Irish eyes were smiling:

After the initial early success of English and Scottish pros in the US Open’s formative years, it became an event dominated by home players. By 1970, no Briton had won for 45 years until Tony Jacklin pitched up at Hazeltine. The reigning Open Champion produced arguably his finest ever performance as the Englishman thrashed the Americans in their own backyard by seven shots to hold the game’s greatest two Opens at the same time.

After Jacklin’s joy, it would be another 40 years before someone from this side of the Atlantic was victorious. In 2010 at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell was the last man standing on a US Open Sunday. Overnight leader Dustin Johnson posted an 82, while even Tiger Woods could only shoot a 75 as McDowell’s three-over 74 was just enough to hold off Frenchman Gregory Havret. With the Northern Irishman securing the winning point for Europe months later, it really was the year of his career.

While McDowell ground his way to glory, it was champagne stuff from Rory McIlroy 12 months later. He replaced his friend and fellow countryman as champion with a vintage display at Congressional, just outside Washington D.C, where he was triumphant by an eight-stroke margin. His 16-under par mark of 268 was the lowest US Open score and most under-par as he won his first Major.

Two years later, it was Justin Rose’s turn to celebrate as he finished one shot clear at Merion. With success coming on Father’s Day, it was an emotional moment for the English golfer as he recalled his late father, Ken, who had been an inspirational figure in his early career. Finally in 2022, it was Sheffield’s Matthew Fitzpatrick defeating the world’s best in America’s national Open. Nine years after winning the US Amateur at Brookline, Fitzpatrick returned to the same Boston venue and held off Masters Champion Scottie Scheffler and another American Will Zalatoris on a thrilling final afternoon.     

The Laird of near misses:

Despite all that British and Irish success, we could not forget about a player who came closer to winning the US Open than many others, Colin Montgomerie. If ever there was a player suited to the demands of this event it was Monty with his effortless ability to find the fairway and then the green. Surely it would only be a matter of time before it all came together over 72 holes for the great Scot at the US Open.

1992: At Pebble Beach, on a brutal final day as the wind came in off the Pacific Ocean, Monty produced an epic two-under par 70 when scores were averaging over 77. That set the clubhouse target at level par, always a good US Open barometer. But Tom Kite held steady in the closing stretch, eventually finishing three shots ahead of Monty, and one of only two players to finish under par.

1994: Two years later, nobody finished lower than Colin over 72 holes as he posted a five-under total, which included a best-of-the-week 65 in round two. The problem was that his score was matched by Loren Roberts and Ernie Els. That meant a return on Monday for a three-man 18-hole play-off. Unfortunately, it was a round too far for Monty. In sweltering conditions, he double bogeyed the second and third holes and ultimately ran up a seven-over 78, limping home four shots behind Els and Roberts, with the South African eventually winning on the second extra hole and his 92nd of the week!

1997: Now our friend Colin was never afraid of making big statements. So after shooting a 65 in the opening round at Congressional, Monty said the course suited him in the same way Augusta was perfect for Tiger Woods. Cue a second round 76! But he battled back over the weekend to turn it into another showdown with Els down the stretch. Level with two holes to go, Els parred the impossibly difficult 17th to Montgomerie’s bogey five and the South African walked off with another US Open.

2006: Nine years later, and with Montgomerie now 42 and still searching for that elusive first Major, opportunity knocked once more at Winged Foot. Standing on the middle of the 18th fairway on the Sunday with a seven-iron in hand, a par-four would get the job done. His usual accuracy deserted him and he plonked his approach into the bunker. Worse still, he had short-sided himself and he could not keep his bunker shot on the green, eventually running up a double bogey six as Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy walked away as the unlikely champion. It would be his final chance for Major success and a glittering career ended without one of the biggest four trophies on his CV.      

And what about Lefty?

But if we thought Colin Montgomerie was Mr Unlucky in US Opens, that tag should really belong to Phil Mickelson, given that he has finished second on no fewer than SIX occasions. If he had only won one of those, he would have completed the career Grand Slam. But given that he has six other Majors in his collection, his sense of loss is probably not as great as Monty’s.

However, Mickelson was also involved in arguably the US Open’s most controversial moment of recent times. During the third round in 2018, the Californian was putting on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills. Now the greens at this Long Island venue are notoriously slick and having knocked his putt past the hole, the left-handed Mickelson could see that his ball was going to run down a slope and off the putting surface. Instead of accepting his fate like every golfer who plays the game has to do, he strode after his ball and hit it while still moving to stop it going down the hill. For this calculated action, he was given a two-shot penalty on his way to an 81. For many, the punishment was not severe enough and his act of blatant cheating should have seen him disqualified.

But if anything, it highlighted how the unique challenge of the US Open can frazzle the brain of the game’s very best players, just like us on a normal round with our family and friends!  

Future US Open venues:

US Open 2025: Oakmont Country Club, Pennsylvania

US Open 2026: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, New York

US Open 2027: Pebble Beach Golf Links, California

US Open 2028: Winged Foot Golf Club, New York

US Open 2029: Pinehurst Resort, No.2 course, North Carolina

US Open 2030: Merion Golf Club, Pennsylvania

US Open 2031: Riviera Country Club, California

US Open 2032: Pebble Beach Golf Links, California

US Open 2033: Oakmont Country Club, Pennsylvania

US Open 2034: Oakland Hills Country Club, Michigan

US Open 2035: Pinehurst Resort, No.2 course, North Carolina

US Open 2036: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, New York

US Open 2037: Pebble Beach Golf Links, California

US Open 2038: Brookline Country Club, Massachusetts

US Open 2039: Los Angeles Country Club, California

US Open 2040: Merion Golf Club, Pennsylvania