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This imagined U.S. Open course shows no mercy

Forty-three years ago, the best golfers in the world were scoring like weekend duffers at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York.

The parade of long par-4s, the fast greens, the deep rough, the pin placements and the general setup prompted complaints before, during and after play. Hale Irwin won at 7 over par in 1974 in what has come to be known as the "Massacre at Winged Foot." Some players criticized the U.S. Golf Association, claiming it was trying to embarrass them.

Sandy Tatum, a USGA executive in large part responsible for the way the course played, brushed them off.

"We're not trying to embarrass the best players in the game," he said. "We're trying to identify them."

"We're not trying to embarrass the best players in the game. We're trying to identify them."

Sandy Tatum, USGA executive, after the 1974 U.S. Open, aka the "Massacre at Winged Foot."

Certainly, the best players are identified annually by how they respond to the nation's best courses toughened to USGA standards. The most difficult holes on those courses -- some classics dating to the early 1900s and some breaking into the rotation since 2000 -- have reached almost legendary status.

With that in mind, we thought it would be fun (if a bit sadistic) to design a relentless round made up of some of the most merciless holes in U.S. Open history. With so many options, doing so proved to be far more art than science. Yet as we head toward next week's U.S. Open, the first at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, we've picked 18 nonetheless. Here are some considerations:

  • We sought the help of experts: U.S. Open champion Tom Watson, golf course architect Rees Jones, USGA historian Victoria Student (who recently helped compile an invaluable list of scoring averages on every U.S. Open hole since 1970, which is the source for the statistics cited below) and Stuart Wolffe, course historian at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, which hosted its first U.S. Open in 1903.

  • We sought variety in our mythical par-72 course, with a par-3 and par-5 on each nine to complement the cast of lengthy par-4s.

  • Seven of the holes are No. 18s. Three are No. 17s. They're notable for how they've impacted tournaments in the final round. Those holes were designed to be tough, and they became harder in the crucible of pressure and history.

"Let me first start with what I've learned after having so many Opens played on my seven U.S. Open courses," Jones said. "And that's really that the front nine doesn't matter. Because that's not where the muscles tighten. Even if you have a great hole on the front nine, it seems to be overlooked. It isn't until you get to a hole that actually swings the tournament that people start regarding those holes as the toughest challenges."

True enough, but some early holes have brought golfers to their knees too. Here is our diabolical 18, with yardages from the most recent U.S. Opens:

No. 1: Oakmont Country Club, first hole

Oakmont, Pennsylvania, par 4, 482 yards
Years: 1927, 1935, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994, 2007, 2016

Why it's tough: This is a supreme test to start any U.S. Open round, one Watson calls "one of the toughest holes we play in U.S. Open golf." The narrow fairway landing area has five bunkers on the left and three bunkers on the right (with trees), and it requires a mid-iron to a green that slopes away from the golfer.

Historically speaking: As a group, players have scored a half-shot or more over par on the hole at each U.S. Open. In 2016, this hole yielded 29 birdies vs. 161 bogeys and 30 double-bogeys. "Making a par on the opening hole -- actually, making a bogey on the opening hole -- doesn't make you feel too bad," Watson said.

Notable: "The [approach] shot is very difficult to get anywhere close to the hole," Watson said. "To get it on the green is basically all you're trying to do because the green slopes away from you."

No. 2: Winged Foot Golf Club, ninth hole

West Course, Mamaroneck, New York, par 4, 514 yards
Years: 1929, 1959, 1974, 1984, 2006

Why it's tough: This converted par-5 was the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history in 2006, when the field played it to an average of .69 strokes over par. Because of its length, it's imperative that players hit the tight fairway to have any chance of reaching the green in two. Then the shot is to an elevated green -- with a mound in the middle -- surrounded by five bunkers.

Historically speaking: No. 9 is just 1/18th of a classic course by A.W. Tillinghast that becomes even more challenging with higher rough in U.S. Open conditions. Not a single player broke par in the first round in 1974. Of the 427 rounds played that week, only eight were under par. Hale Irwin, who won by two strokes, was the only contender to birdie No. 9 in the final round. "It was a trying time for the psyches of most of us. Our egos were bruised," Irwin recalled to the Los Angeles Times 23 years later.

Notable: Just 30.2 percent of players reached the green in regulation in the final round in 2006. Rees Jones, who has designed or re-designed seven U.S. Open layouts, says holes such as this one -- par-4.5s -- are terrific challenges. But at Winged Foot, it's difficult to select the hardest. "I think every hole at Winged Foot is tough," he said.

No. 3: Baltusrol Golf Club, fourth hole

Lower Course, Springfield, New Jersey, par 3, 194 yards
Years: 1903, 1915, 1936, 1954, 1967, 1980, 1993 (on Lower Course starting in 1954)

Why it's tough: A pond covers much of the fairway all the way to the front of the large, two-level green, and there's a big bunker front left and three bunkers in the back. It can be a "make or break" hole, said Wolffe, Baltusrol's historian. In 1993, this hole yielded 65 birdies over four rounds, with 86 bogeys or worse. A tight front pin close to the water can make tee shots and long, downhill putts from the back very interesting.

Historically speaking: It's a scenic, challenging hole with history, and it was ranked as one of the best 18 holes in America by Sports Illustrated in 1965. Rees Jones, whose father Robert Trent Jones redesigned the Lower Course for the 1954 U.S. Open, says the contour of the green is what makes it challenging. "It's two holes," he said, noting the terrace in the back his father added. Jack Nicklaus, who won two U.S. Opens at Baltusrol, said one of the most "unnerving" situations on the course was to hit a shot out of a back bunker downhill toward the pond.

Notable: Originally, the hole played to about 140 yards under architect A.W. Tillinghast. After Robert Trent Jones lengthened it, some club members hated the new version, arguing that it was too difficult. Jones said he'd play it in front of some of his critics to show them it was fine. He aced it with a 4-iron, then said, "Gentlemen, as you can see, the hole is eminently fair."

No. 4: The Olympic Club, sixth hole

Lake Course, San Francisco, par 4, 489 yards
Years: 1955, 1966, 1987, 1998, 2012

Why it's tough: Players must negotiate a large, fairway-encroaching bunker on the left side of the narrow fairway at about 295 yards if they want a safe approach to the green. The green, which has a false front that will reject short approach shots, has big bunkers front left and right and one on the back right. At the 2012 U.S. Open, the hole played .54 strokes over par. Only 15 birdies were recorded -- with 194 bogeys and 30 double-bogeys.

Historically speaking: Previously, No. 17, a long par-4, had been Olympic's hardest. At the 1998 U.S. Open, it played to an average of 4.71 strokes, the second-highest score among all U.S. Open holes since 1970. But it became a par-5 for the 2012 tournament.

Notable: In the 2012 U.S. Open, Hunter Mahan had a respectable four rounds, finishing nine strokes behind winner Webb Simpson. If not for No. 6, however, he could have been a contender. He was just 3-over for the 17 other holes for the tournament but 7-over -- including a triple-bogey and a double-bogey -- on No. 6. Simpson played the hole in 1-under.

No. 5: Torrey Pines Golf Course, 12th hole

South Course, San Diego, par 4, 504 yards
Year: 2008

Why it's tough: This can play even longer than its yardage, with the approach being an uphill shot into the wind coming in off the Pacific. In the only U.S. Open at Torrey (which gets No. 2 in 2021), the average score was 4.58.

Historically speaking: En route to a playoff win over Rocco Mediate, Tiger Woods could have won in regulation if not for bogeys on No. 12 in the second and third rounds. Woods also bogeyed this hole in the playoff and needed a 19th hole to finish off Mediate.

Notable: "It's over 500 yards into the wind and was designed as such because we wanted the best players in the game to have to hit a long iron into that green," said Rees Jones, who redesigned the South to land the U.S. Open.

No. 6: Pebble Beach Golf Links, 14th hole

Pebble Beach, California, par 5, 580 yards
Years: 1972, 1982, 1992, 2000, 2010

Why it's tough: The route on this dogleg right is rough, with two bunkers spotted to nab the wayward shots of those trying to cut the corner. But the green -- it requires an uphill shot -- is more treacherous, with a big rise in the middle creating some tilts and a tiny safe-landing zone.

Historically speaking: The course's finishing hole is the much more famous par-5, and it provides thrills in its own right, especially with the extra pressure of being the final hole. But No. 14 has been statistically tougher. In 1972, it was the toughest par-5 in U.S. Open play since 1970, with an average score of 5.48. In 2010, it wasn't much easier, at 5.43, and it produced 146 bogeys, 36 double-bogeys and 50 birdies.

Notable: Paul Goydos, who once made a quadruple-bogey 9 on No. 14 at the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, said the approach shot is like "trying to stop a pitching wedge on a moving school bus."

No. 7: Merion Golf Club, fifth hole

East Course, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, par 4, 504 yards
Years: 1934, 1950, 1971, 1981, 2013

Why it's tough: Multiple reasons. It's long and tight, and there are two fairway bunkers on the left as it turns left, right about where most players want to go. Plus, the narrow fairway tilts left toward a creek running all the way up the left side to the green. In 2013, golfers paid a price for missing the fairway, as 83 percent of those who did so made bogey or worse. The green is huge, with a right-to-left slope on what's usually a very slick surface. In 2013, golfers scored an average of 4.71 here, with just 12 birdies to go with 220 bogeys and 51 double-bogeys. This hole also was a beast in 1971, with a 4.47 average score.

Historically speaking: In 2013, No. 5 was brutal to many of those in the hunt for the championship -- including winner Justin Rose, who bogeyed it three times. On the final day, contenders Luke Donald and Jason Day had bogeys, and Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els double-bogeyed.

Notable: Said Merion head pro Scott Nye before the 2013 U.S. Open: "The fifth hole is about as demanding a hole as you'll find. Par on this hole is a terrific score."

No. 8: Atlanta Athletic Club, 18th hole

Highlands Course, Duluth, Georgia, par 4, 507 yards
Year: 1976

Why it's tough: It played a little shorter in '76, about 460, but was still a bear. It doglegs left, with a pond on that side, so players trying to take a shorter route run the risk of getting wet. If their tee shots stay safe right, they can land in the rough or a bunker. Then there's a pond in front of the green for their approach.

Historically speaking: It ranks as the second-toughest hole in U.S. Open play since 1970, with an average score of 4.71. In the final round, the 18th proved decisive. John Mahaffey, a stroke off the lead, put his approach in the pond in front of the green and bogeyed. Jerry Pate, just 22, hit a 5-iron out of the rough from about 190 yards to within 2 feet of the pin and birdied to secure a two-shot win.

Notable: The course for the U.S. Open was a mix of two layouts, with the back nine a Robert Trent Jones design featuring sharp doglegs and tree-lined fairways. "I think the 18th is in your top five hard holes in golf," Rees Jones said.

No. 9: Southern Hills Country Club, 18th hole

Tulsa, Oklahoma, par 4, 466 yards
Years: 1958, 1977, 2001

Why it's tough: It's a dogleg right that finishes at an elevated green that slopes noticeably from back to front. Bunkers guard a flat landing area on the left side of the fairway that presents the best point of approach. In 1971, the field scored 4.64 on it. In 2001, that mark was 4.43.

Historically speaking: The green at 18 was the scene of frustration in Round 4 of the 2001 U.S. Open, which was won by Retief Goosen in an 18-hole playoff against Mark Brooks. Brooks, tied for the lead, three-putted his 72nd hole. A couple of groups later, Goosen had a chance to win outright but also three-putted, including a missed 2-footer that would have averted the playoff. Stewart Cink failed to make the playoff because he double-bogeyed the 18th by missing an 18-inch putt.

Notable: The venue is known for hot summer days that can bake fairways, greens and golfers. In 1958, Tommy Bolt sunk a 4-foot putt for par on 18 to clinch his four-shot win over Gary Player in 100 degrees. "It was like playing inside a blast furnace," Arnold Palmer said.

No. 10: Oakland Hills Country Club, 18th hole

South Course, Bloomfield Township, Michigan, par 4, 498 yards
Years: 1924, 1937, 1951, 1961, 1985, 1996

Why it's tough: This boomerang-shaped par-5 is converted to a par-4 for championship play and features a sharp dogleg right with a narrow fairway guarded at the corner by seven fairway bunkers (two added in recent years). Players have a mid-to-long iron from a sloped fairway into a shallow green divided by a hump in the center. In 1996, the average score was .53 strokes over par. In 1985, it was .46 over par.

Historically speaking: The 1951 U.S. Open is legendary for its difficulty. Nobody broke par in the first two rounds, and Ben Hogan's winning score was 7-over. Yet he shot a brilliant 67 on the final day -- then gave the course (which he said was the toughest he'd ever played) its nickname. "I'm glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees," he said.

Notable: In his winning final round, Hogan birdied the 18th (then playing at 459 yards) after hitting a huge drive over the bunkers at the dogleg and leaving himself with just a 6-iron into the green. His birdie was the capper to what he called "the finest round of golf I have ever played."

No. 11: The Country Club, 17th hole

Brookline, Massachusetts, par 4, 381 yards
Years: 1913, 1963, 1988

Why it's tough: Many of the most challenging U.S. Open par-4s are brutally long, sometimes converted par-5s, but not this one. Even in 1913, it played at 360 yards. It's a short dogleg left that requires accurate shot-making.

Historically speaking: At age 20, amateur Francis Ouimet made the hole famous with his birdie during an 18-hole playoff that propelled him to a 1913 win over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. One bunker on the left of the dogleg is called the Vardon Bunker because his shot into it led to a bogey that killed his chances. The same bunker bit leader Jacky Cupit in the fourth round in 1963, leading to a double-bogey. He still reached a three-way, 18-hole playoff, but he and Arnold Palmer lost to Julius Boros. The 17th also is noteworthy as the site of the 1999 Ryder Cup celebration of the U.S. team after Justin Leonard made a long, clutch putt. Golfers will get another crack at it in 2022, when the U.S. Open returns to The Country Club.

Notable: "Even though it's less than 400 yards, it's a sharp dogleg, and the green is treacherous," Rees Jones said. "Clyde Street is lurking on the left [out of bounds], and you really can't cut the dogleg that much, and the bunkers on the left require a precise shot off the tee."

No. 12: Winged Foot Golf Club, 18th hole

West Course, Mamaroneck, New York, par 4, 450 yards
Years: 1929, 1959, 1974, 1984, 2006

Why it's tough: This tree-lined dogleg left features a tight fairway with small hills and valleys in the landing zone to create a variety of problems for second shots. There's a steep back-to-front slope to the green, plus a severe pitch in front that can send short approaches back toward the fairway. In 1974, golfers averaged .63 strokes over par; in 2006, they averaged .47 over.

Historically speaking: There have been plenty of train wrecks on this hole in U.S. Open play, but none was worse than Phil Mickelson's in 2006. With a one-stroke lead in the final round, Mickelson put his tee shot far left, hit a tree, landed in a bunker and made double-bogey to finish tied for second, one behind winner Geoff Ogilvy. Said Mickelson to reporters: "I am such an idiot."

Notable: Watson went into the final round in 1974 leading but finished five strokes back of winner Hale Irwin. "I always felt Winged Foot was the toughest course we played in all of golf, day in and day out," Watson said. He added: "A.W. Tillinghast was the designer, and he was called 'Terrible Tilly' for a reason when he designed courses like Winged Foot."

No. 13: Bethpage State Park, 15th hole

Black Course, Farmingdale, New York, par 4, 459 yards
Years: 2002, 2009

Why it's tough: One writer characterized it as a "long, twisting, uphill hole" that leads to a bunker-guarded green "that feels like it's sliding off the hill." The green has a back-to-front slope that is reported to have been softened somewhat since 2009. In 2002, golfers averaged 4.6 strokes and had just 28 birdies, compared to 186 bogeys and 44 double-bogeys. Seven years later, the average score was 4.47.

Historically speaking: In 2009, Tiger Woods, who won at Bethpage in 2002 but called No. 15 the toughest hole on an especially tough course, played the hole 4-over (a double-bogey and two bogeys) while finishing four shots behind winner Lucas Glover. Phil Mickelson bogeyed the hole in the third and fourth rounds and finished two shots back.

Notable: In 2009, Charles McGrath of the New York Times camped out at the hole to document the ugliness. He saw five birdies, 85 pars, 51 bogeys and 19 double-bogeys (or worse) in the first round. "Hardly a threesome came through unscathed, without at least one golfer posting a bogey or worse, and there were several multiple crashes," he wrote.

No. 14: Baltusrol Golf Club, 17th hole

Lower Course, Springfield, New Jersey, par 5, 649 yards
Years: 1903, 1915, 1936, 1954, 1967, 1980, 1993 (on Lower Course starting in 1954)

Why it's tough: In 1993, the hole measured 630 yards. Now it's about 650, and golfers face a tee shot through a tree-lined slot to a tight fairway and thick rough. A 300-yard drive in perfect position still leaves about 350 yards. In 1993, the average score was 4.977 -- high by par-5 standards, where most pros are thinking birdie. In the 2005 PGA Championship, the average score was 4.93.

Historically speaking: Originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the hole was about 565-575 yards. It was lengthened to 630 by Robert Trent Jones. In 1980, Jack Nicklaus was leading Isao Aoki by two shots at the 17th. Nicklaus' 22-foot birdie kept him rolling toward victory, especially when Aoki matched him with an 8-foot birdie.

Notable: Only one golfer in championship play has reached the green in two. That was John Daly in 1993. On the tee, fans urged him to go for it, and he replied, "I'm going to try." He then hit a 325-yard drive followed by a 1-iron that landed low and hard, bounced through the rough and made it onto the green. "Those were two of the best solid shots that I've ever hit in my life," Daly told reporters. From 45 feet, he two-putted for birdie.

No. 15: Cherry Hills Country Club, 18th hole

Cherry Hills Village, Colorado, par 4, 487 yards
Years: 1938, 1960, 1978

Why it's tough: There's a pond along the left side of a fairway that slopes toward the water. If the tee shot isn't wet or in the rough or out of bounds to the right, golfers who land in the narrow fairway have an uphill shot to the green -- with bunkers front left and right. Although the U.S. Open hasn't been held at Cherry Hills for almost 40 years, this finishing hole statistically ranks first in difficulty among all U.S. Open holes since 1970. The average score that year: 4.74.

Historically speaking: Arnold Palmer won the wild 1960 event in which eight players went to the 18th tee with a chance to win. Palmer had par on 18 to close out a brilliant round of 65, while his pursuers crashed and burned. One, Ben Hogan, double-bogeyed 17 but was still in contention when he hooked his drive into the pond en route to a triple-bogey. In the 2005 U.S. Women's Open, Lorena Ochoa led with one hole remaining but made quadruple-bogey to finish four back.

Notable: In 1978, the course was particularly difficult. Not a single player shot below 68 in any round. Winner Andy North had two of only 11 birdies all week on 18. When Tom Weiskopf was asked how he would play the 18th if he needed a life-or-death par 4, he said, "I'd make a 6."

No. 16: Merion Golf Club, 18th hole

East Course, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, par 4, 521 yards
Years: 1934, 1950, 1971, 1981, 2013

Why it's tough: This is a muscle hole, requiring a wood or long iron approach after an almost blind tee shot over the remnant of an old quarry. The green, with a dome in the center, presents the last defense. The hole ranks three times among the 15 hardest U.S. Open holes since 1970, at No. 4 (in 2013 with an average score of 4.706), No. 8 (in 1971 at 4.66) and No. 14 (in 1981 at 4.60). In 2013, there were 11 birdies, 208 bogeys and 54 double-bogeys.

Historically speaking: It's the scene of one of the most famous photos in golf, Ben Hogan's 1-iron from the fairway to the green in the final round in 1950. The shot set up a par that put him into a three-way playoff, which he won the next day. There's a plaque in the fairway turf honoring that shot by Hogan that reads: June 10, 1950/U.S. Open/Fourth Round/Ben Hogan/1-iron.

Notable: Said Watson: "It's a very long, long hole, and one thing that compounded the problem is your second shot was played off a downslope to a degree. ... If you drove just over the hill, you'd be hitting off a downslope with a long iron into a green that had all kinds of quirks."

No. 17: Pebble Beach Golf Links, 17th hole

Pebble Beach, California, par 3, 208 yards
Years: 1972, 1982, 1992, 2000, 2010

Why it's tough: The tee shot is often into the wind toward a long, shallow green with a large bunker short left and six bunkers behind or to the left. Reading the strength and direction of the wind is crucial.

Historically speaking: In 1972, this ranked as the most difficult par-3 in any U.S. Open since 1970, with an average score of 3.57. It has consistently been the toughest par-3, scoring at 3.49 in 2010, 3.45 in 1992 and 3.44 in 2000. It has been the scene of magic, however. Jack Nicklaus hit a 1-iron tight to the pin in 1972 for a birdie, and Tom Watson chipped in from behind the hole for a birdie in 1982. Both were victorious.

Notable: Watson says the green is incredibly difficult to hit, noting that just five players in the final round in 2010 were able to do so. "It's such a little green, and you're hitting such a long shot. You're hitting a 210-yard shot in there, and to stop the ball on that little, tiny, hard green ... it was virtually impossible to keep your ball on the putting surface."

No. 18: Oakmont Country Club, 18th hole

Oakmont, Pennsylvania, par 4, 496 yards
Years: 1927, 1935, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994, 2007, 2016

Why it's tough: A long, accurate tee shot into a fairway that narrows about 260 yards out, with bunkers on both sides. The second shot is uphill to a fast and undulating green guarded by bunkers in front and on the left and trees back left. In 2007, the average score was 4.60, and just 33 percent of the field hit the green in regulation.

Historically speaking: Dustin Johnson birdied 18 to close out his victory in 2016, but the hole took a toll on other contenders. Two of the three who finished tied for second, Jim Furyk and Scott Piercy, bogeyed it in Round 4. In 1994, Ernie Els went into the last hole needing par to win, but he hit into the rough and made bogey to be part of a three-way playoff on Monday, which he won.

Notable: Even the toughest hole on one of the toughest courses wasn't a match for perhaps the best closing round in U.S. Open history, winner Johnny Miller's 63 in 1973. It could have been a 62 if he'd made his first putt on 18 after hitting the green in two shots. "Was down in the hole and came back out again," Miller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2007.