The eyes of the sports world will be on Oakmont Country Club this week, as the best golfers on the planet bring their talents to the 116th playing of the U.S. Open. Industry pundits have given their expert opinions on contenders and the chatter is all about the new “Big Three.” Originally a term used to describe the triumvirate of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, the modern version consists of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Regardless of era, fans want to see drama on Sunday that involves superstars battling amongst one another on the game’s biggest stage.
In preparation for this year’s tournament, we take a look back at the top-5 duels in U.S. Open history.
- Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus (Oakmont, 1962) – With the U.S. Open returning to Oakmont this week, it is only fitting to start our list with one of the great showdowns in the venue’s history, a 1962 battle between Arnold Palmer and the Jack Nicklaus. In the early 60s, Palmer was by far the biggest star in golf and prohibitive favorite to win the title in his native Pennsylvania. He almost pulled it off, but ended up missing a 20-footer on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with the young phenome, Nicklaus. The Golden Bear won the Monday finish by four strokes, the first of his record 18 Major Championships. Palmer rebounded quickly, winning the 1962 Open Championship a few weeks later.
- Payne Stewart vs. Phil Mickelson (Pinehurst No.2, 1999) – A rain-soaked Sunday at Pinehurst provided some of toughest scoring conditions in tournament history. As the field faltered, two superstars separated from the pack and traded the lead throughout the afternoon, Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson. On the 18th hole, Stewart rammed home a 15-foot par putt to secure a one-shot victory over Phil the Thrill. His ensuing fist pump is immortalized today by a bronze statue that sits just beyond the 18th green.
- Arnold Palmer vs. Billy Casper (Olympic Club, 1966) – Mr. Palmer finds himself on our list for the second time, and again he comes up just short. Entering the back-nine on Sunday at Olympic Club, he had a seven-shot lead over Billy Casper and was making a run at the all-time U.S. Open scoring record, held then by Ben Hogan. Palmer faltered on the final stretch, while Casper’s always great putting propelled him into a share of the lead and eventual tie. Casper went on to beat The King by four shots in the playoff, capturing his second U.S. Open title.
- Fuzzy Zoeller vs. Greg Norman (Winged Foot Golf Club, 1984) – By 1984, Australia’s Greg Norman stamped his arrival among the game’s elite by claiming his first PGA Tour title at the Kemper and making a charge at the U.S. Open. His efforts culminated in a 45-foot par saving putt on the 72nd hole to tie Fuzzy Zoeller, who famously waved a white towel of surrender moments after the putt dropped. Unfortunately for the Shark, he couldn’t keep the momentum going into Monday, where Zoeller would record the lowest round ever in U.S. Open playoff history and an eight-shot victory.
- Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate (Torrey Pines, 2008) – This selection differs from the others because of the pedigree of the two players involved. While the aforementioned examples included legends of the game going head-to-head in their primes, the 2008 storyline more closely resembles the plot of the first Rocky movie. Despite playing with serious leg injuries, Tiger Woods was considered an unstoppable force and heavy favorite to capture his third U.S. Open. Those predictions would prove to be accurate, but just like Apollo Creed nearly losing his title to Rocky Balboa, Tiger’s road to a 14th Major Championship was almost halted by underdog, Rocco Mediate. Exhibiting one of the greatest displays of clutch putting in tournament history, Tiger would sink a 12-foot birdie putt on 72nd hole to take the contest to a playoff. The two remained tied after 18-holes on Monday, but Woods was able to finally pull away for a victory on the first sudden-death hole.
Let us know what you think of the list in the comments below and please share your favorite U.S. Open memories.