Some names are synonymous with the The British Open, like those of Tom Watson (five championships), Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods (all with three Claret Jugs apiece). These days, it’s names like Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth who are eyeing up more silverware for their mantle. But enough about golf’s celebrities. Everyone already knows who they are.
This article is about the underdogs. The nobodies. The guys that weren’t on anyone’s radar when the tournament started, but still managed to etch their place in golf history by snagging a major championship when least expected. Here are 7 unlikely champions from the past 30 years of British Open history.
7. Darren Clarke, 2011
It was an emotional triumph for Northern Irishman Darren Clarke in the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. After the 42-year-old hoisted the Claret Jug for the first and only time, he dedicated the win to his late wife Heather, who died of breast cancer in 2006. Clarke’s victory was also part of a Northern Ireland trifecta of wins in a 13 month period. Rory McIlroy, the current world no. 1 (who isn’t competing this weekend), won the U.S. Open prior to Clarke’s Open Championship heroics, while fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open in 2010. Clarke started his 2011 victory march by posting a 2-under 68 to sit three shots back. He then clawed his way to 2-under and 1-under tallies to hold the lead at -5 after Saturday (one stroke ahead of Dustin Johnson). While Johnson foundered on Sunday (2-over 72), Clarke held on with even par to win.
6. John Daly, 1995
Say what you will about Daly now, what with the loud pants, the smoking, the middling golf game and ribald ways, but in 1995 he was king of the Old Course. All was not right with Daly’s game in 1995, as the 1991 PGA champion struggled, having not made a top 10 that year and missing the cut five times in 16 starts. But the mulleted one found lightning in a bottle at St. Andrew’s, which was hosting the elite event for the 25th time. No American had won at St. Andrew’s since Jack Nicklaus in 1978 and Daly came out swinging, using his incredible power to shoot 67 (-5) and take a share of the lead in the opening round. He shot 1-under on moving day and held on as the leader at -6. Saturday would see his only misstep, as he shot 1-over, while New Zealand’s Michael Campbell came out of nowhere to post a 65 and lead at -9. On Sunday, Daly and upstart Italian Costantino Rocca finished tied at -6 to force a four-hole playoff. Daly would be unstoppable in the playoff, winning by four strokes.
5. Mark Calcavecchia, 1989
It’s a good thing that Calcavecchia’s very pregnant wife urged him to compete in the Open at Royal Troon in 1989. The likable American, who was at the height of his golf powers (he finished second at the 1988 Masters), didn’t want to go because she was expecting their first child. He did go and boy what a tournament it was. He opened with a with a 1-under 71 and was five strokes off the pace. He went 4-under on Friday, but still found himself four strokes behind leader, Australian Wayne Grady, who would factor in later. He came out hot on Saturday, posting a second consecutive 68, but again, Grady still lead him by three strokes. On Sunday, Greg Norman (the 1986 champion) shot the lights out, posting an 8-under 64 to grab a share of the lead with Grady (1-under that day) and Calcavecchia (yet another 68). Calcavecchia claimed his unlikely Claret Jug in the four-hole aggregate playoff, using nerves of steel to post a -2 under, beating Grady by three strokes.
4. Louis Oosthuizen, 2010
Oosthuizen, the South African whose name announcers had to learn to pronounce in 2010, is in the hunt again for the Claret Jug at the Old Course, five years on from his incredible victory. Talking heads in 2010 should have just went with Oosthuizen’s nickname “Shrek” in 2010, as the European Tour player made the rest of the field eat his dust. He had won just one European Tour event going into the 2010 event, and superstar in the making Rory McIlroy raced out to the lead, tying a major championship record with a 9-under 63 to take the early lead (while Oosthuizen shot a superb 7-under 65 to sit second). On moving day, McIlroy faltered with an 80, while Oosthuizen went five under to grab a lead (-12) he would never relinquish. He would post a 69 on Saturday and a 71 on Sunday to win the tournament by seven strokes over Lee Westwood. Wow.
3. Paul Lawrie, 1999
Carnoustie wouldn’t be kind to Jean Van de Velde in 1999. But, the poor Frenchman’s loss was Scotsman Paul Lawrie’s gain. Van de Velde roared out to five-stroke lead after three rounds of play at an inhospitable Carnoustie (he was the only player at even par), while Lawrie sat 10 strokes back. But, as history has so noted, Van de Velde struggled mightily, posting a triple bogey at 18, while Lawrie shot an unlikely 67 to set up a four-hole playoff (and become the first player to come from 10 strokes back). Lawrie, Justin Leonard and Van de Velde would contest for the Claret Jug by playing the final four holes (15-18). Lawrie and Leonard shot bogey on 15 and Van de Velde doubled after his ball found an unplayable lie. They all bogeyed the par-3 16th, before Lawrie and Van de Velde birdied 17 to send Lawrie into the final hole with a one-shot lead. Leonard and Van de Velde both found trouble on 18, while Lawrie would put his approach at the par-4 18th to within four feet of the flag, sinking his birdie putt to win it.
2. Ben Curtis, 2003
Darren Clarke wasn’t the only golfer to hoist an unlikely Claret Jug at Royal St. George’s. American Ben Curtis was 396th in the world rankings and playing in his first major championship in 2003 and would become just the second golfer to win in his debut. That other guy was none other than Tom Watson, who tamed Carnoustie in 1975 to win in his Open Championship premier. Curtis started slowly at Royal St. George’s, shooting identical rounds of 72 (2-over) to find himself three strokes behind leader Davis Love III on moving day. Curtis would go 1-under on Saturday, while Dane Thomas Bjorn shot a 2-under 69 to usurp the lead from Love III. Curtis went low over the first 11 holes on Sunday, shooting 6-under, but would fade a bit, requiring a 10-foot putt on 18 to take the clubhouse lead. Bjorn, who was up three with four to play, would go bogey-double bogey-bogey-par, though, to finish second and hand Curtis his one and only major.
1. Todd Hamilton, 2004
Todd Who? Exactly. One year after relative unknown and fellow American Ben Curtis won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, equally obscure golfer Hamilton would triumph at Royal Troon in 2004. Hamilton shot a quiet even-par 71 during the first round, while English fan favorite Paul Casey roared to an early lead with a 5-under 66 along with Thomas Levet. Casey blew up on moving day, shooting a 77, as Hamilton was one of five to fire a 4-under 67 to get into contention. He would post a second consecutive 67 on Saturday to find himself one stroke up on 2002 champion Ernie Els heading into the final round. Hamilton and Els were part of a wild finish on Sunday, with Hamilton holding a one-shot lead on 18, only to bogey while Els took a disheartening par (he missed a 12-foot birdie to win). On the four-hole aggregate playoff, Hamilton shot par on the 17th (par-3), while Els bogeyed, setting the stage for Hamilton’s par putt on 18 to win it.