Here’s the thing about golf shots. The most majestic 300-yard drive, the most divine 200-yard approach shot, the most rapturous 40-foot putt and the simplest 1-inch tap-in all count the same on the scorecard—one shot apiece.
But legends of the game of golf are built around the legendary shots they hit, the ones that bolster Hall-of-Fame résumés and etch deeply into the memories of millions of golf fans worldwide. So while a player’s first shot counts exactly as much as his last, it’s often that one extraordinary shot he hits that can define a player forever and give a tournament its mark of distinction.
What makes these jaw-dropping shots stand out even more is how they run counter to the typical winning strategy of playing top-tier golf. Legends of golf typically play with control and finesse, hunting for birdies while ensuring pars. But they also know when to go for it, and how to go for it. It is those dramatic shots—hit by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and the other members of the legendary legion—that provide the thrill of the game, and leave us thinking: “Boy, I wish I could do that.”
For this pantheon of legends we have assembled the golf shots that have made each of these players unforgettable, naming their most impressive shot as well as an honorable mention. Here are the legendary shots that have made the game of golf what it is today.
As the game’s most accomplished player, Jack Nicklaus struck all manner of shots that he considers his best. How can you narrow down the hundreds of meaningful shots that an 18-time major winner has hit?
The Golden Bear would not argue that his most dramatic shot was the 1-iron he hit to the par 3 17th at Pebble Beach during the U.S. Open in 1972. It wasn’t as if he had to hit a great shot that day in the final round of the Open. He was leading by three shots as he stood on the tee. Just a routine shot, even one that landed in the front bunker, would have been good enough.
Yet we’re talking about the greatest long-iron player of all time. Standing on the 17th tee, the wind howling, Nicklaus considered that 218-yard shot and selected the club feared by more players than any other—the dreaded 1-iron. The shot came off the clubface with explosive force, traced an arc directly at the flag, bounced just in front of the cup, caromed off the pin and stopped less than a foot away. A tap-in birdie 2 on the 17th at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open. What could be more legendary?
Honorable Mention The Sunday afternoon of the 1986 Masters was likely the most exhilarating round of golf in the game’s history. Nicklaus, then 46, started the day four shots behind leader Greg Norman, with all the best players of the era in contention. He thrust himself into the mix, and his eagle 3 on the 15th hole got him within two shots of the lead.
On the 16th, the gorgeous and dangerous par 3 over water at Augusta National, Nicklaus took out a 5-iron for the shot of about 175 yards. He struck it so cleanly that he didn’t bother to look at it for long, reaching down for his tee. “Be the right club,” his son Jackie, his caddie, said. “It is,” Nicklaus replied matter-of-factly. The ball rolled past the pin, caught the back slope and rolled back past the cup, nearly nicking it. It left him with a 3-footer for birdie, which of course he made. And after a birdie on the 17th, Nicklaus went on to win his sixth and last Masters, and his 18th and final major.
Tiger Woods began wowing the golf world as a teenager, winning amateur titles left and right. His win at the 1997 Masters at age 21 didn’t come as a surprise, and he hit several fabulous shots and holed many eye-popping putts on his way to victory.
Fast-forward to 2000, and the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Club near Toronto. Woods, in the midst of a glorious season with eight victories, arrived at the 72nd hole of the tournament tied with Grant Waite. Woods pushed his tee shot right on the par 5 into a fairway bunker. He had 218 yards to the hole, over water. He never even considered laying up.
He took a trademark Tiger Woods slash with a 6-iron, the ball soaring over the lake and bouncing just off the back of the green. From there he got down in two for a birdie and his ninth victory of the season. In retrospect he said because the ball had not stopped on the green, it wasn’t that good. Waite, his fellow pros and a few thousand spectators would argue differently.
Honorable Mention At the 2005 Masters, Woods missed the green to the left on the 16th, his ball coming to rest near a thick collar of rough. He was past pin high, facing a shot with so much break—20 feet or so—that just getting the ball close would be miraculous. He needed to at least make par to remain in contention for another green jacket, but par looked liked a dicey proposition.
He took a few abrupt practice swings with a wedge, needing to avoid the rough on both backswing and downswing. He surveyed the green intently, his eyes not so much discerning the line as digging a trench for it. He struck the pitch crisply, carrying it just onto the green and to the ledge behind the hole. As planned the ball took a direct right turn, and rolled delicately down the slope right toward the cup. The ball hesitated for an instant (the Nike moment with the swoosh in full view) and fell in for a birdie. “In your life,” said CBS commentator Verne Lundquist, “have you seen anything like that?”
Woods went on to win that Masters in a playoff with Chris DiMarco. It was his fifth Masters. Quite astoundingly, it was also his last.
On June 18, 1960, Arnold Palmer struck the shot that ended up recruiting the millions of fans who became “Arnie’s Army.”
After three rounds of the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer was trailing leader Mike Souchak by seven shots. In those days, the Open concluded on Saturday with 36 holes. If Palmer was going to win, he needed to make a charge Saturday afternoon, one that would back up his Masters win in April. The supremely confident Palmer thought that if he could shoot 65 in the final round, he would have a chance at winning. “Doesn’t 280 always win the Open?” Palmer said to his close friend, the journalist Bob Drum, who had pooh-poohed his chances.
In order to shoot that 65, Palmer figured he needed a fast start, and had to drive the par 4 first hole, which he had played in two-over-par for the first three rounds. It was about 350 yards downhill in the thin mountain air outside Denver. Palmer lashed at his tee shot and drove the green, two-putting for birdie and going on to shoot that 65 for a 280 total. After stumbles by Souchak, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, Palmer had his one and only U.S. Open victory.
Honorable Mention In 1960, Arnold Palmer finished second at the British Open at St Andrews, his appearance in the event giving it a whole new life after golf’s oldest championship had fallen on some particularly hard times and, for American pros anyway, was becoming irrelevant. To the joy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Society and the thousands of fans in the United Kingdom who grew to adore him, Palmer returned for the Open at Royal Birkdale in 1961.
In the final round, he found himself with a four-shot lead on the back nine, but links courses can booby trap a player, and Palmer found himself in just such a dilemma on the 15th hole. His drive wasn’t terrible, but the result was. The ball fell off the right side of the fairway of the par 4 into the tangle of what appeared to be a blackberry bush. Palmer thought he could get the face of the club on the ball, but what would happen to it was another matter. It could go almost anywhere, or nowhere.
He had about 150 yards to the pin in blustery conditions. His lead could vanish in a hurry. He took out a 6-iron, swung with every muscle, and the club cut through the bush like a scythe. He got the ball on the green and made par, going on to win his first British Open.
Gene Sarazen was an established star of the golf world as he played in the 1935 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. The tournament and the club were the dream of the immortal Bobby Jones, but the Masters then was not the legend that it is today, only in its second year and just another stop on something that could be loosely called the PGA Tour. But it was a stop that Jones and other organizers of the tournament hoped would attract the best players, and in turn would attract the traveling national press on its way back from spring training baseball in Florida.
Sarazen came to the par 5 15th trailing Craig Wood (who had finished much earlier) by three shots. The diminutive Sarazen was still a powerful player for his size, and he cracked a drive of at least 260 yards. That left him about 235 to the pin, over water. He took out a four-wood—known as a “spoon” back in the day—and nailed it, the ball pitching a foot or so short of the green, bouncing and rolling into the cup for the rarest of all golf feats, the double eagle 2 on the par 5. Sarazen tied Wood, then won the Masters in a playoff.
Sarazen’s “albatross” became known as the “shot heard ’round the world,” and a shot that put the Masters on the road to being the most revered of all majors.
Honorable Mention At the age of 71, Sarazen felt that playing in the 1973 British Open at Royal Troon on the west coast of Scotland was the best way to wrap up his stellar playing career. It had been 50 years since Sarazen first played there, and because he was an Open champion, he could play in the tournament as long as he liked.
On a bright and blowy day, Sarazen, clad in his trademark plus-fours, pulled a 5-iron out on the tee box at the short par 3 eighth hole at Troon. The hole was only about 120 yards, but it wasn’t easy, and it was known as the Postage Stamp for its tiny green. Yet here was the septuagenarian confidently making a smooth, punchy swing that sent the ball on a flight falling 15 feet short of the hole. The true roll put the ball in the cup for an ace. What a way to call it a career.
The Merry Mexican had fashioned himself a sensational career by the time he arrived at the British Open at Royal Muirfield in 1972. With a caddy-shack swing and a deadly putting stroke, Trevino was a regular winner and the defending Open champion.
Trevino had a five-stroke lead over Jack Nicklaus at the start of the final round. Nicklaus had won the Masters and the U.S. Open that year, putting him on course for the Grand Slam. Trevino figured he or playing partner Tony Jacklin would win the tournament and stop Nicklaus’ bid, then Nicklaus went five-under for the first 11 holes and tied for the lead. A bogey on 16 put Nicklaus one stroke behind Trevino, who would need to close out with pars or better to ensure the win.
But on the par 5 17th Trevino hit an awful drive into a pot bunker, fell down after making an awkward swing to get out and had missed the green to the right with his fourth shot. It looked like bogey at best. Trevino took out a 9-iron and chipped the ball in for a par. The stunned Jacklin three-putted for bogey and Trevino won his second straight Open.
Honorable Mention The now-defunct Skins Game, a made-for-television event begun in the early ’80s, was an entertaining affair that featured the best players in the game, among them Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Trevino. It was televised on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Viewers watched the players in a format that every weekend betting golfer calls a “skins game.” The big difference was that the pros weren’t wagering their own money—they were also playing for more than half a million dollars.
There was $175,000 worth of skins on the line as the players—Trevino, Palmer, Nicklaus and Fuzzy Zoeller—stepped up to the par 3 17th hole at PGA West in California. Trevino’s 167-yard 6-iron was struck so true it couldn’t do anything but find the hole.
“He was speechless,” said Nicklaus later about Trevino’s ace. “I think that’s the first time in my life I’ve heard him shut up.”
Annika Sorenstam is one of the greatest women’s players of all time. She won 10 majors among her 72 LPGA Tour victories, with another 17 wins on the European Tour. And her winning percentage was remarkably high considering that she joined the LPGA in 1994 and retired in 2008 to raise a family. From 2001 through 2006 she won 46 of the 124 LPGA tournaments she played.
Sorenstam was an outstanding shotmaker, but one in particular really stands out in the history of the game, a shot played against the men of the PGA Tour. In 2003 Sorenstam accepted a sponsor’s invitation to play in the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, a stalwart tournament of the tour.
This wasn’t a stunt. Sorenstam had no dreams of being a PGA Tour player, but she wanted to prove to herself and to the golfing world that she could at least compete against the men. When she arrived in Forth Worth, hundreds of media from around the world were waiting. She had received widespread praise and criticism for her decision to play, and the fairway was lined with spectators at Colonial on Thursday for her opening tee shot on the short par 4 10th hole. Eminent golf writer Dan Jenkins figured that no shot ever played before had as much pressure involved. Annika striped a 4-wood right down the middle more than 250 yards. The crowd roared—they had definitely fallen in love with her.
Sorenstam didn’t make the cut at Colonial, but in every way she made the grade.
Honorable Mention Sorenstam knew that the 2008 season was going to be her last on the LPGA Tour, and the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen outside Minneapolis would be her final major. Sorenstam had been inspired by the U.S. Open as a teenager, and had won it three times.
She wasn’t in contention that final day in 2008, but wanted to finish on a strong note. The chances of doing that didn’t look good when she hit a poor drive on the closing par 5. She had to just pitch out and faced a third shot of 199 yards over water. She hit a 6-iron flush—and it went dead in the hole. The huge crowd exploded.
“As a European, I’ve always felt the U.S. Open was the biggest championship in women’s golf,” Sorenstam said. “For my last shot, to hole it, it was this fairy tale story to end it that way.”
Rory McIlroy was already in the midst of a spectacular season when he arrived at the PGA Championship at Valhalla this past August. He had won his first British Open in July, and followed that up with a triumph in the Bridgestone Invitational. He was the undisputed No. 1 player in the world.
At the PGA, which he had first won in 2012, he found himself on the leaderboard on Sunday, but trailing Rickie Fowler by three shots as he stood in the fairway of the par 5 10th hole. He had 283 yards to the hole, a little uphill. He knew that he had to at least make birdie to give himself a chance to overtake Fowler and challengers Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. He took a mighty swat with a 3-wood and did not look all that pleased. The ball had come out a little left, but it was hot and fading back to the right. It landed just short of the green and tracked beautifully, stopping seven feet short of the hole. He made that eagle putt and went on to win his fourth major championship.
Honorable Mention At the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, McIlroy was on his way to setting records and winning his first major. He had set 36-hole and 54-hole U.S. Open scoring records on the rain-softened course and no one was challenging him. Still, on Sunday he had something to prove. He had melted down in the final round of the Masters in April by shooting an 80 when he had the lead.
There would be no meltdown on Sunday at Congressional. Instead, there would be an exclamation point. On the 214-yard, par 3 10th hole, McIlroy watched playing partner Y.E. Yang stick a hybrid club four feet behind the hole. With a carry across water, the last thing McIlroy wanted to do was be short, but going way long wasn’t good either. He selected a 6-iron, struck it flush and it carried about eight feet past the pin. It stopped dead at first, then started a slow roll back down the slope, finishing inches from the cup for birdie. Case closed.
Bubba Watson lives by the creed “If I’ve got a swing, I’ve got a shot.” Never was that more on display than in the 2012 Masters.
Watson was in a playoff with Louie Oosthuizen, who had dazzled the Augusta National patrons on Sunday with the first ever double eagle 2 on the par 5 second hole, knocking a 4-iron in the cup from 253 yards. Now the pair was on the first playoff hole, the long par-4 10th, when Watson hooked his drive deep into the trees on the right with no clear shot for the green.
Virtually every other player on the planet would have simply pitched out. Not Bubba. He had grown up hitting impossible shots around his backyard in Florida and he had no fear of trying to curve a shot 45 yards around the trees surrounding him, with 163 yards to the pin.
Watson had three things going for him: His no-fear attitude, a lie that gave him a full swing, and that he was left-handed, making the shot a hook for him. For a right-hander, it would have been a slice, and nine times out of 10 that would likely end up as a shank. Watson used a gap wedge and took his mighty blow, sending the ball within a few feet of a magnolia tree on the right. It hooked sharply, turning 45 yards before landing on the green, 12 feet from the hole. Oosthuizen made bogey and Watson’s two-putt par won him his first green jacket.
Honorable Mention This past November, Bubba Watson was leading the HSBC Champions Tournament, a World Golf Championship event at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, before he made bogey on the 16th hole and an ugly double bogey on the 17th. His second shot on the par 5 18th put him in a bunker 60 yards from the pin. Things no longer looked good.
But this is Bubba Watson. He had a swing, so he had a shot. He hit a mighty blast with his sand wedge, the ball landing about 25 feet short of the hole and rolling in. The eagle 3 tied him with Tim Clark for the lead. They went to a playoff on the 18th and from the same bunker Watson made up and down for birdie and the win.
They don’t call Phil Mickelson “The Thrill” for nothing. Over his career he’s given us plenty of thrills, and not a small amount of chills, with his daring game. His aggressive and optimistic style of play has earned him five major championships and has cost him others, most notably the double bogey on the 18th hole at Winged Foot that cost him the 2006 U.S. Open.
But of all his thrilling shots, none was more daring than the one he struck on the 13th hole of Augusta National on Sunday of the 2010 Masters. He was leading the tournament by two shots when he pulled his drive right on the short par 5 into the trees, the ball coming to rest between two pine trees that were maybe four feet apart. The ball was sitting atop the pine straw, a decent enough lie, but pine straw is funny and slippery stuff. Making a swing while standing on it can be akin to hitting off a skating rink. Anything less than perfect contact and Mickelson would be bouncing off one tree or the other, maybe even ending up in Rae’s Creek.
He had 187 yards to carry the water to a pin tucked close to the hazard. He loved the lie, he would say later. He loved the challenge even more. Phil likes the thrill as much as his fans do. He took out a 6-iron, clipped the ball perfectly off the pine straw and it came to rest three feet from the hole for an eagle 3 on his way to a third Masters green jacket. “It was really one of the few shots that only Phil could pull off,” said his playing partner Lee Westwood.
Honorable Mention Mickelson was five shots behind starting the final round of the 2013 British Open. A month earlier he had fumbled away another U.S. Open, this one at Merion to Justin Rose. But Mickelson was hot, having won the Scottish Open the week before.
He got up to speed on the back nine at Muirfield the final day and got himself into contention. On the par 5 17th, Mickelson hit a massive 3-wood off the tee. (He was hitting 3-wood since he had decided not to use a driver in the tournament. He’s also incredibly long with a 3-wood.) Then into the wind from about 280 yards, he hit another booming 3-wood that snaked its way on the green, setting up a two-putt birdie. That shot sealed his comeback and ultimately gave him his first Claret Jug.
More Great Shots
There is no photograph in golf more iconic than Hy Peskin’s black-and-white snapshot of Ben Hogan hitting a 1-iron to the 18th green at Merion in the 1950 U.S. Open. And that shot, more than any other struck by the legendary Hogan, defines him. Hogan parred the hole, setting up a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, which he won just 16 months after surviving a near-fatal collision with a bus.
At the 1972 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills outside of Detroit, Gary Player was in a dogfight on the back nine on Sunday. He badly sliced his drive on the 16th over some willow trees, blocking his view of the green. Spectators had trampled the wet rough and he caught a reasonable lie. From there he hit a 9-iron over the trees to three feet from the cup to make birdie, a shot that propelled him to the title.
Sam Snead had the finest swing of all time.
All who watched his long, languid, effortless swing were awed by its power and efficiency. But it wasn’t a full shot that led Snead to victory in the 1954 Masters. He and Ben Hogan were in a playoff, tied after nine holes. Snead’s approach on 10 missed the green, but he chipped in for a birdie from 65 feet, helping earn him his third and final green jacket.
By the time Tom Watson arrived at Pebble Beach for the 1982 U.S. Open, he had already won three British Opens and two Masters titles. He desperately wanted the U.S. Open. On the par 3 17th on Sunday, tied with Jack Nicklaus for the lead, Watson pulled his tee shot into the gnarly collar rough. He holed it for a birdie, and won. “That shot had more meaning to me than any other shot of my career,” Watson would say.
Bill Haas was in a playoff with Hunter Mahan for the Tour Championship in 2011 at East Lake when his approach to the 17th green went too far left and trickled down a slope, ending up half-submerged in the water. Haas splashed a wedge three feet from the hole to save par. He went on to win the tournament and the FedEx Cup, making that shot worth $10 million.
Byron Nelson is known for his 11-tournament winning streak. He could make the game look easy, but in 1939 he had to work hard for his sole U.S. Open title. In a second 18-hole playoff, Nelson propelled himself to victory with an eagle 2 when he holed a 1-iron from 210 yards.
In the 18-hole playoff for the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood Country Club, Bobby Jones was tied with Bobby Cruickshank as they played the 18th, a long par 4. Cruickshank didn’t hit his drive far enough to carry the pond in front of the green and laid up. Jones’ ball was pushed into some loose dirt at the edge of the rough with 190 yards to carry the pond. He went for it with a 2-iron, knocking the ball to eight feet and two-putted for his first of four U.S. Open titles.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.