8 Biggest Controversies Through The Years At The US Open

A look at eight US Open controversies from the last 40 years

US Open controversies

The USGA has been renowned for setting up US Open courses to be brutally punishing, often controversially so.

In this piece we take a look at eight controversial moments from previous US Open tournaments, from extreme course setups to hole locations and rules controversies.

We start with Ernie Els in 1994...

1 – Oakmont 1994

Ernie Els plays from a much improved spot in 1994

Ernie Els plays from a much-improved spot in 1994

After a superb third round of 66, Ernie Els took a three-shot lead into the final day at Oakmont in 1994. But the 24-year-old started poorly on Sunday with a hook into horrific rough. It looked as though the South African would do well simply to extricate his ball from the tangled lie, let alone reach the green.

But, when Els reached the spot, it was apparent that a camera crane was in his line. A rules official stated the crane was an immovable obstruction and, as such, Els was granted a free drop, which he took in a clear, and massively more playable, spot.

That might have seemed like just a lucky break, but the thing was that the crane was actually perfectly moveable. It had been moved four times already on Sunday before Els arrived and, as soon as he played, it was moved again to cover the action on another part of the course. The rules official would later admit that he got it wrong.

Els finished the day tied at the top of the leaderboard with Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts and then went on to win an 18-hole playoff the following day.

2 – Olympic Club 1998

The USGA often set hugely challenging pin positions in the US Open but, at Olympic Club in 1998, many felt they went too far with their choice of hole location on the 18th in the second round. Set on a high point of green, numerous players who missed on their first try looked on in dismay as the ball ran back towards, and sometimes past, where they stood. The words Mickey and Mouse were bandied about that day.

3 – Inverness Club 1979

Coming to the 8th hole in the first round at Inverness, Lon Hinkle saw an unconventional option off the tee. Aiming at a small gap in the trees he fired through and down the 17th fairway, dramatically reducing the length of the par-5. He made a birdie four. Hinkle’s playing partner Chi Chi Rodriguez and a number of others copied the strategy.

The following day, the shortcut was no longer an option. Overnight, the chairman of the greens committee had paid to have a fairly sizeable tree installed in the gap. It, predictably, became known as "The Hinkle Tree".

4 – Bethpage Black 2002

Davis Love III searches for his ball on the 10th at Bethpage

Davis Love III searches for his ball on the 10th at Bethpage

A 260-yard carry to the fairway sounds pretty brutal. Try adding a strong headwind and soft ground conditions. That’s what happened on the par-4 10th hole at Bethpage in 2002. It became a nightmare for the shorter hitters and the scoring average over the weekend went up to 4.5. The feeling was that the set-up of the hole favoured the bombers to too great an extent. “I reckon 50 per cent of the field couldn’t reach that fairway,” said Mike Weir afterwards.

5 – Shinnecock Hills 2004

greens staff water the 7th green at Shinnecock in 2004

Greens staff water the 7th green at Shinnecock in 2004

The players started a bit too well at Shinnecock in 2004. After two rounds, 11 of them were under par, and the USGA didn’t like it. They decided the most sensible course of action was to stop watering the course to firm it up.

Unfortunately, by the final round, they’d pretty much lost the greens and were having to water them between groups just to keep them vaguely playable. Vaguely would be the operative word – the scoring average on the final day was an astonishing 78.7.

By the end, only two men broke par: winner Retief Goosen and US Open nearly man Phil Mickelson.

6 - Chambers Bay 2015 

US Open Controversies

Henrik Stenson looks on in disbelief as he misses a putt at Chambers Bay at the 2015 US Open

This ended up being Jordan Spieth's second major of the year, after recording a winning score of 5-under-par to finish one ahead of fellow American Dustin Johnson.

However, the news of the week circled around the controversial putting surfaces over that week. Colin Montgomerie, who finished on +13 in a tie for 64th, described the greens in his pre-tournament warm up rounds as: "very, very poor. The quality of the surface of the greens is extremely poor. That is going to take away the consistency of the putts. The 10-footers that you see people hole all the time, that won’t be happening this week. The greens are extremely poor."

Fellow professionals, most notably Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia, supported Montgomerie's critique of the Chambers Bay greens.

With only eight players finishing under par that week, it was clear that the greens finitely were not up to major championship standard. Although Spieth won't care about that.

7 - Oakmont 2016

US Open Controversies

Dustin Johnson with wife Paulina after a controversial final round at the 2016 US Open
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Following the controversy at Chambers Bay the year before, there was yet more US Open drama at the 2016 tournament, in which Dustin Johnson won his first major championship.

When Johnson's ball moved on the 5th green during his final round, without him approaching it, he stopped and made sure he interpreted the ruling correctly.

More than an hour later, the USGA informed Johnson it was unsure if he should be penalised a stroke under the idea that he had forced the ball to move. The USGA notified Johnson that the action on the 5th green would be reviewed and ruled upon at the end of his round. The American was eventually given a penalty stroke, dropping him back to 4-under-par, but it still meant he won the championship by three shots.

8 - Shinnecock Hills 2018

Mickelson was having several issues during the third round of the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. After bogeying four of his last five, he headed to the 13th hole. Facing an 18-foot bogey putt down a fast slope, Lefty hit his putt too hard, but before his ball could go down another slope he ran after it and hit it again while it was still in motion.

Obviously against the rules, Mickelson managed to avoid disqualification despite their being justifiable reason to do so. He scored a 10 on the hole and drew an ire of criticism across the world of golf.

Indeed the 2018 tournament at Shinnecock was criticised mainly on Saturday because many believed the powers that be had lost the golf course. Zach Johnson said the USGA had completely lost the golf course and said the tournament had come down to luck. Other players like Pat Perez criticised the unfairness of some of the pin positions too, such as those on the 13th and 15th.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?