Armour Emerges Victorious in Oakmont’s U.S. Open Debut
By Joey Flyntz, USGA
This story recounting the 1927 U.S. Open Championship, when Tommy Armour prevailed in a playoff over Harry Cooper, is the ninth in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
While 300 is the gold standard in bowling, it is not a number usually associated with a winning score at a major golf championship. However, any golfer staring down Oakmont Country Club’s narrow fairways, bordered by perhaps the most penal bunkers in the country, during the 1927 U.S. Open Championship probably felt like a bowler trying to keep the ball down the middle at all costs.
After hosting the 1919 and 1925 U.S. Amateur Championships, Oakmont hosted its first U.S. Open in 1927. And Henry Clay Fownes’ masterpiece in suburban Pittsburgh bared its teeth. Some of the game’s all-time greats, names such as Bob Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, were not able to respond to Oakmont’s challenge.
After 72 holes, two men had answered Oakmont’s questions best among the field of 148 starters: Tommy Armour and Harry Cooper, both of whom shot 13-over-par 301, with Armour draining a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green to force an 18-hole playoff. Armour outlasted Cooper in the playoff by three strokes, shooting 4-over 76 as Cooper played the last six holes in 5 over par.
Armour, who earned the nickname “The Silver Scot” due to his heritage and prematurely gray hair, is the last U.S. Open champion to win with a score of 300 or higher, but eyewitnesses to the course’s extreme demands knew that number was deceiving.
“Oakmont was the stiffest test of golf in the 1927 Open Championship of the United States that I ever saw anywhere,” said O.B. Keeler in the July 1927 edition of The Golfer. “And the winning scores, or the tying scores, of 301 were an achievement that Tommy Armour and Harry Cooper may treasure to the end of the chapter... I think the run-of-the-mine golf fan will never understand what golf it required to shave 300 that close.”
After shooting 78 in the opening round – five strokes behind co-leaders Harry Hampton and amateur Harrison R. Johnston – there was little reason to believe Armour would be a contender going forward. However, a 71 in the second round brought him within two strokes of surprise 36-hole leader Johnston, who would win the 1929 U.S. Amateur.
Armour’s 71 was one of only two under-par scores in the championship; only Al Espinosa’s final-round 69 was better. Armour shot identical 76s in the third and fourth rounds to force the playoff with Cooper. His first-round 78 and third-round 76 are both tied for the highest scores in those rounds by a U.S. Open champion since World War I.
Eight holes into the final round, Armour was ahead and confident. But Oakmont was always there with a reality check.
“Dear, this one is mine,” Armour recalled telling his wife in his recollection of the championship entitled Memories of the Monster. “She replied: ‘Not yet! Remember, you are playing at Oakmont!’ Then I proceeded to take a 6 on the ninth, four shots from the edge on the 10th for another 6, two big shots on the 12th into the bunker, hole high (no more than 50 feet from the hole) – a 7! My lead was gone, I was trailing and I was a nervous wreck.”
Oakmont’s bunkers were perhaps the primary reason for the high scores. The maintenance staff furrowed the bunkers, which were raked perpendicular to the line of play. The furrowed rakes – “An instrument that must have been brought from the torture chambers of the Middle Ages,” according to Armour – were weighed down with heavy iron attached to the neck, and the result was a bunker with deep trenches every 3 inches, almost likes waves. If a player got a bad lie – and Oakmont presented plenty of opportunities – his only play was to gouge it out, as the sand wedge was not yet in existence.
As Armour closed in on his playoff victory over Cooper, he expertly avoided one of the course’s menacing bunkers to all but seal things. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice described the scene thusly in the July 1927 edition of The Golfer:
“It was at the 17th that Armour again proved the heart of a champion. For, at this baffling hole, Cooper laid his approach 18 inches from the pin. Armour had a deep, wide, sanded abyss to pitch across, an abyss replete with woe and disaster. He might have played it safely to the left, but he elected to win in the true and correct way by pitching a delicate niblick shot across the deep trap straight for the pin, and the ball stopped just 10 inches away.”
Armour went on to win two more majors: the 1930 PGA Championship and the 1931 Open Championship at Carnoustie in his native country, among his 27 professional victories. For Cooper, nicknamed “Lighthorse Harry” for his speedy pace of play, it was the first of four runner-up finishes in majors without a victory, although his 31 PGA Tour wins would earn him World Golf Hall of Fame renown.
Bob Jones, the defending champion who would go on to win two more U.S. Opens, finished tied for 11th, his worst finish in his 11 U.S. Open starts. It also marked the only time that Jones’ two biggest rivals of the era, Sarazen (third) and Hagen (sixth), both finished better than him in a U.S. Open.
Although Oakmont has undergone several changes in the intervening years, competitors in the 116th U.S. Open should expect a demanding test of golf in June. While it’s a safe bet that a score in the 300s won’t challenge for the title, players can rest a little easier not having to worry about the furrowed bunkers that Armour and his contemporaries tried to avoid at all costs.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.