New World Order: Ranking Rory's runaway in U.S. Open annals

by | Senior Writer

BETHESDA, Md. -- Rory McIlroy hadn't even finished his signature masterpiece, at least to date, when the questions started flying.

By Monday, after the young Ulsterman had tied or set a dozen U.S. Open records, the sports talk-show hosts from Seattle to South Florida were wrestling with putting McIlroy's eight-stroke win into some historical context.

That, of course, is the best part.

Rory McIlroy caps his superb tournament Sunday with a short putt. (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy caps his superb tournament Sunday with a short putt. (Getty Images)  
McIlroy made the tournament into his personal Romper Room, desecrating a three-time Open site and turning it into a veritable Congressional processional. After picking up a couple of early birdies on Sunday, it wasn't a matter of whether he would win, but by how much -- and where the performance would rank in the game's glorious annals.

Lucky for us, some folks have been thinking about these things since well before McIlroy became the youngest player in 88 years to win the National Open. Two veteran golf scribes, Len Shapiro and Ed Sherman, formerly of the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, days earlier had released Golf List Mania: The Most Authoritative and Opinionated Rankings of the Best and Worst of the Game, a 283-page tome that will provide enough list grist to spark years of figurative bar fights.

Included in the book, available at Amazon and most major retailers, is a ranking of the greatest U.S. Opens ever played, based on a subjective criteria that includes compelling back story, strength of venue, historical relevance, particulars of the winning performance and overall theatrical impact.

The McIlroy massacre would surely have made the list, Shapiro said Tuesday from his home in suburban Virginia, where smoke from McIlroy's torching of Congressional can probably still be seen in the distance.

"Oh, for sure it would have made it," Shapiro said. "Because it was the coming-out party for an up-and-coming superstar. He shattered 12 scoring records and that's fairly impressive.

"He took the Open where it had never been before."

The book's list of the 11 best Opens includes a wide historical chasm, from unknown Francis Ouimet in 1913 to Tiger Woods' one-legged stand in 2008. It does, however, have a glaring omission.

The performance that Woods himself has classified as one of his two career favorites is missing -- his 15-stroke win at the Open at Pebble Beach 11 years ago, the most lopsided runaway in tournament history.

"That's a mistake," Shapiro said, laughing. "I'm happy to say it. That was a transcendent performance. Incredible.

"But hey, that's why we do lists, right, so people can read them and call us morons?"

Not to worry. That's why New World Order trots 'em out every Tuesday, to stimulate conversation, to engage and enrage. The list of best-ever Opens was edited before our eyes last week by Wee Mac and pleads for a press of the refresh button.

Here's our list of the top 10, with the ranking of Sherman and Shapiro in parentheses.

10. Winged Foot in the butt (unranked)
Geoff Ogilvy knows the U.S. Open title of 2006 was all but handed to him. Not just by Phil Mickelson, but by a slew of stars who failed to get off the course before it kicked them in the backside. Jim Furyk had a chance. Padraig Harrington, still searching for his first major, did as well. Colin Montgomery bungled the 18th from the middle of the fairway. But Mickelson committed the biggest gaffe of his career, ultimately leading to one of his five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. Leading, he double-bogeyed the last after whacking his drive into a tent and second shot into a tree, then famously said, "I am such an idiot." One of the wildest days in Open lore, period.

9. Watson calls his shot (3)
After missing the 17th green at Pebble Beach in 1982, Tom Watson was tied for the lead with time running out. He conferred with caddie Bruce Edwards and despite the pressure, boldly predicted he would hole the ensuing chip, which has since become one of the most-replayed golf shots of the 20th century. Watson holed the chip for birdie, danced across the 71st green, pointed at Edwards and exclaimed, "I told you so," and beat longtime rival Jack Nicklaus to claim his lone Open victory.

8. 'Fat Jack' deposes the King (7)
Playing before a hugely partisan crowd of Arnold Palmer fans in Oakmont, Pa., Jack Nicklaus was razzed and jeered with some cruel characterizations as he dueled with the King for the 1962 Open title. Nicklaus, a rotund professional rookie at age 22, eventually quieted the rowdy crowd when he beat Arnie in an 18-hole playoff that also represented the passing of a torch. Nicklaus had recorded the first win of his career, and soon thereafter, he would assume the mantle of the game's greatest player.

7. Reign of Payne (8)
The 1999 Open at Pinehurst was memorable for plenty of reasons, including Payne Stewart making a clutch putt on the last hole to beat Mickelson by a shot, but it became more indelible because of what transpired four months later. Stewart, a feisty two-time Open winner, had dodged Tiger Woods and Mickelson down the stretch, then had to lay up on the last and make a 15-footer for par to avoid a Monday playoff. Mickelson, wearing a beeper because his wife was set to go into labor with the couple's first child, watched from a few feet away as the clinching putt rolled in and Stewart bear-hugged his caddie, Mike Hicks. Later that fall, the victory was magnified in golf lore after Stewart died in a plane crash, one of the biggest tragedies in the game's recent history.

6. Past, present and future converge (1)
The 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, like with the Payne Stewart victory, grew more after the fact because of the historical significance of what took place that day. Nicklaus, a 20-year-old amateur, was trying to make his first splash (he would win the event two years later). Ben Hogan was in the hunt, looking for one last shot at glory. But the winner was Palmer, who drove the first green on the final day, and shot 65, the score he predicted beforehand might be good enough to win, to take the title by two shots. If golf had a Mt. Rushmore, these three faces would be carved in stone, and at Cherry Hills, they all intersected. Of course, nobody fully grasped the significance of their starry championship confluence at the time.

5. Rory Story (unranked)
Need we rehash what we all just witnessed? Well, OK. Rory McIlroy broke or tied 12 scoring records, obliterating the Open record for low score relative to par and raw 72-hole total. He became the youngest Open winner since Bobby Jones, 88 years earlier. It was anticlimactic, but he managed to make the championship march compelling and was rooted along by U.S. fans. No question, depending on how this all plays out, this event could move well up the list if Wee Mac has a Hall of Fame career ahead. As far as individual performance, it ranks second only to Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach -- and that's a debatable call.

4. Tiger makes his bones (5)
Watching Tiger Woods limp over 91 holes to win the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines was a thing of wonder even before anybody knew just how seriously his leg was injured. Woods had surgery after the Masters, then sustained two fractures in his left leg and blew out his ACL while overtraining for the Open. Woods owns Torrey and wasn't about to sit this one out. When a doctor told him before the tournament that he should stay home and recuperate, Woods famously replied, "I am going to play and I am going to win the U.S. Open." Three years back, it stands as his most recent major win. Was it also his last? We'll see.

3. Greatest upset in golf history (4)
Americans at the turn of the previous century were barely getting their feet wet in the game, and routinely getting their wallets lightened by the U.K. stars of the day. So when American Francis Ouimet, a former caddie from a blue-collar Boston family, beat unquestioned icons Ted Ray and Harry Vardon in a playoff for the title in 1913, the global landscape began to shift under their feet. Suddenly, for the Americans, the game was full of possibility. For what it would ultimately portend for the dominant Yanks contingent, the victory by the skinny kid at Brookline was the biggest game-changer ever.

2. Injured Hawk soars again (2)
When the details of Woods' injuries in 2008 became known afterward, some talking heads on the Golf Channel huffed that he was writing the greatest comeback in golf history. Sorry, not even close. Woods tore up his knee. Ben Hogan nearly died, just a few months before winning the 1950 Open title. The Hawk was gravely injured in a head-on collision with a bus in 1949, fracturing a hip and sustaining injuries to his legs that resulted in massive clotting concerns. As Woods did decades later, the gimpy, gritty Hogan had to endure an 18-hole playoff to win. It was his most inspiring victory, and given the Hawk's accomplishments, that's a mouthful. Hey, Hollywood made a movie about it. That says it all.

1. Throwing boulders at Pebble Beach (unranked)
To this day, those who watched it struggle to find the right words. But few have any issue with characterizing Woods' demonstrative, runaway victory in 2000 at Pebble Beach not only as the best individual Open performance ever, but the greatest 72-hole stretch in golf history. Woods finished 12 under. The guys in second were 3 over. Just as significantly, it was the beginning of his Tiger Slam run, capped by his victory the following April at the 2001 Masters. No knock on Rory, but given the condition of the course and the manner in which his foes struggled, this was the yardstick by which all Open performances should be judged.


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