If all the highest-profile sporting events were won by one of the pre-tournament favorites, then think how dull the world would be. Golf is certainly not like that and the sport’s Major championships, three of them involving fields of 156 players, nearly all of whom believe they have the ability to win, produce plenty of surprise winners.
Over the past 150-plus years of Major championships, the shock victories have come thick and fast, often from players who enjoy one inspired week and never come close to challenging for another similar title for the rest of their journeyman careers.
Dating back to 1860, a mere 77 players have won more than one Major compared to a total of 131 golfers who have only once donned a green jacket, lifted the [British] Open’s claret jug or claimed one of the silver trophies on offer at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. In addition, among those 131 solitary wins can be found some of the most astonishing successes in the whole of sport.
Of course, the oldest Major will always be the [British] Open, and the first one-time, surprise winners were a pair of Scots—Andrew Strath at Prestwick in 1865 and Tom Kidd, whose victory in 1873 took place in his home town, St Andrews. In the case of the latter, it was the first time the Old Course had hosted the event, the first time it had been staged over two 18-hole rounds (as opposed to three loops of 12, as had been the norm at Prestwick), and the first time Kidd had entered a tournament that, at the time, was only in its infancy. Whether it was local knowledge or the horrid, stormy weather that suited ex-caddie Kidd, he was no doubt delighted with the cash prize he received for his efforts—£11 ($17 at today’s exchange rates).
Well over a century later, another unheralded Scot, Paul Lawrie from Aberdeen, was the beneficiary of an even more incredible story. In 1999, Lawrie went into the last round 10 shots behind on a Carnoustie course with rough thicker than anything seen in living memory. Undaunted on a course he probably knew better than anyone else in the field, he shot a remarkable 67 in these ultra-tough conditions while others—particularly long-time leader Jean Van de Velde—crumbled around him. After Lawrie beat the Frenchman and American Jason Leonard in a playoff, the record books showed that no one had ever come from so many shots back in the last round to win a Major.
Within five years of Lawrie’s triumph, there were two more underdog winners at The Open, both near-unknown Americans. At least Todd Hamilton, the 2004 champion, had a history of wins on the Japan Golf Tour and had won the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour in Florida just four months previously. He was also using a rescue club, newly available on the market, to fashion some crucial bump-and-run shots on the bone-hard Royal Troon links. The 39-year-old had been scrapping around at Q School only two seasons beforehand, yet he still found the inspiration to beat former champion Ernie Els in a playoff.
However, Hamilton’s win only registered a minor tremor on the shock-o-meter compared to Ben Curtis’s exploits at Royal St. George’s the previous summer. Curtis was a handful of starts into his rookie season as a PGA Tour pro at the time, ranked 396th in the world and with just one top-25 finish to his name. The man from Columbus, Ohio, was a complete unknown and a 300-1 outsider—indeed, few of even the most ardent of golf fans had heard of him prior to his moment in the sun (although, in truth, there wasn’t much of that about during a pretty bleak week)—yet he still managed to sneak through a crowded leaderboard to win by a stroke.
Perhaps the oddest part of the story was that Curtis’s caddie for the week, local bagman Andy Sutton, was just as shocked as everyone else. Sutton’s regular pro had failed to qualify for the Open, so he called the IMG sports agency on the off-chance of picking up a week’s work. “They had a guy called Ben Curtis coming over from the U.S. I’d never heard of him,” said Sutton. And even though the pair were in the mix for the final round, a victory never crossed the caddie’s mind. After all, why would it have with the likes of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love and Nick Faldo all poised at the top end of the leaderboard. “I was fully expecting him to shoot 80 and for us to finish 20th. Unbelievable.”
On the final day, however, Curtis set a clubhouse lead at one-under-par that was not beaten. He thus became the first major championship debutant to win since Francis Ouimet in 1913 (Keegan Bradley emulated this feat at last year’s PGA Championship, but he was already well above the radar after a successful debut season on the PGA Tour).
Ouimet’s triumph in the U.S. Open has been hailed in both print and on celluloid because of its fairytale qualities. An amateur player, aged just 20, Ouimet had grown up over the road from the 17th hole at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was easily the best young player in the state. None the less, it took an invitation from the USGA to persuade Ouimet to play with the pros. However, after the regulation 72 holes he found himself tied with two of Britain’s greatest players from that sepia-tinted era before World War I, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The fact that Ouimet then won an 18-hole playoff by five strokes was enough to put the sport of golf on the front pages of every major newspaper across America, coast-to-coast.
Forty years later, another wonder winner came along. Dick Mayer was a disciple of the late Claude Harmon before his Tour career gathered pace in the 1950s and he should have won the 1954 U.S. Open, but for a final-hole triple-bogey that left him tied for third. The fact that Mayer actually recovered from this disaster to win the same championship three years later, after a playoff against defending champion and seasoned Tour veteran Cary Middlecoff does him immense credit.
The following year also witnessed a playoff. On this occasion, every expert, both amongst the press corps and amongst the galleries, was convinced that the legendary Ben Hogan only had to turn up to claim his fifth U.S. Open win against unsung underdog Jack Fleck from Iowa. But Fleck, a World War II veteran who took part in the Normandy landings, beat his hero by three strokes at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, which had already acquired a reputation as a place “where champions go to die.”
The roll call of completely unexpected U.S. Open champions who had to qualify for the event also includes New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, who held off Woods to win by two shots at Pinehurst No.2 in 2005; Steve Jones, who saw off Love and Tom Lehman down the stretch at Congressional in 1996 shortly after missing most of the previous four seasons through injury; and Georgia’s Jerry Pate in 1976, his rookie season on Tour, who sealed his career-defining moment with a towering 5-iron to within a few inches of the cup on the 72nd hole of Atlanta Athletic Club.
The final Major of the year, the PGA Championship, was a match play event from 1916 to 1957, a format that resulted in a number of relatively unfamiliar names appearing on the Wanamaker Trophy, such as Tom Creavy, a 20-year-old club pro from Rhode Island who beat the highly-fancied Densmore Shute in the 1931 final.
Since the tournament turned itself into a 72-hole event in 1958, there have been plenty of further surprises. Before the 2002 PGA, Rich Beem had made just one cut in the three Majors in which he had played when he spectacularly fended off another Tiger-in-full-flow challenge at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minnesota.
In the following year’s PGA at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, Shaun Micheel hit the shot of his life—a 7-iron to two inches on the final hole—to take the spoils and thwart fellow American Chad Campbell. Micheel, 169th in the world rankings before the event, said: “I showed up to play a practice round and saw how difficult the golf course was. I was just trying to make the cut. I probably would have been happy with that.”
It was his first, and to date only, PGA Tour win, though he did finish a distant, and highly creditable, second to Woods three years later at Medinah Country Club near Chicago. Just over a decade earlier, another first-time Tour winner to make his breakthrough at the PGA Championship, John Daly, pulled off perhaps the most outrageous piece of Major championship gate-crashing in the history of the game.
I had to go look him up in a PGA Tour player guide so I’d know what he looked like in case I had to go find him and get him registered
Daly was famously the ninth and final alternate for the 1991 tournament, and only got in on the eve of the first round because Nick Price pulled out at the last minute to attend the birth of his child. The PGA of America’s own administrator in charge of filling the tournament with a replacement, Ken Anderson, had never even heard of Daly. “I had to go look him up in a PGA Tour player guide so I’d know what he looked like in case I had to go find him and get him registered,” he said.
The man who would become known as the ‘Wild Thing’ drove through the night to take up his spot at Crooked Stick near Indianapolis, and, crucially, teamed up with Price’s caddie—the late Jeff ‘Squeaky’ Medlin. But his chances seemed almost non-existent as the rookie from Arkansas had already missed 11 cuts in 23 starts by that point during the season.
However, Daly’s length helped him on the then-monstrous 7,295 yard course, particularly as he was able to fire his drives continually over most of the trouble. For example, on the dogleg 14th, there was a 280-yard carry over water. “I was hitting L-wedge into that hole. Other guys were hitting 3- or 2-irons in. It was a big, big advantage,” remembers Daly. Even caddie Medlin had little idea what he was working with. He confessed to his wife during the tournament: “I can’t club this guy. He hits it longer than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Daly took the tournament lead on day two and never relinquished it, shooting a 12-under-par total of 276 and winning by three shots from Bruce Lietzke. “It’s a miracle,” said Daly at the time of his victory. However, miracles sometimes happen more than once, and ‘Long John’ went on to become perhaps golf’s biggest surprise packet of all time by winning his second Major title, the [British] Open, in 1995 in almost arctic conditions over the Old Course at St Andrews.