Top Major Shockers


The no-name with the long name didn’t just win – he won by seven, a margin no less startling than the identity of the champion himself. Most guys who come out of nowhere to swipe a major title do it on the final holes of the tournament, and in many cases, they capitalize on the mistakes of others to complete their improbable dream. One man’s career-defining victory is usually another man’s indigestible loss.

Not this time, though. Not even close. Louis Oosthuizen, the formerly anonymous South African who carries a ton of vowels and twice as much poise, dominated the 2010 British Open so convincingly that it seems preposterous to think he was invisible a week ago. Some first-time major champs look like they’re just getting started, others like we’ve seen everything they’ve got, and while it’s easy to get carried away in the moment, this guy looks nothing like the second coming (and going) of Michael Campbell.

There isn’t a tour pro alive who moves the club through the contact zone with more grace and less effort than Oosthuizen. His golf swing, like those of fellow countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, is a beautiful thing to watch – exceptional rhythm, perfect tempo, the type of balanced, flowing finish that belongs in an instruction video.

Oosthuizen’s life, however, has undergone major reconstruction in the last several months: a first child, a claret jug, and now, the burden of expectations. We’ll see how he handles it, but in becoming the fourth supersized surprise to win a British Open since 1999, he hardly qualifies as the most unlikely major champion of the Tiger Woods era. Misery loves company, but as this ranking of shockers might attest, so does success.

1. Ben Curtis (2003 British) – He gets the top spot for a couple of reasons. One, he was a winless PGA Tour rookie, 396th in the world ranking, when he traveled to England, without a caddie, no less, to compete in his first major championship. Two, Curtis prevailed with four of the game’s best players nipping at his heels. Thomas Bjorn should have won the tournament. Woods could have won the tournament. Vijay Singh and Davis Love III were right there, too, but when a golf course gets crazy, so does the bounce of the ball late Sunday afternoon.

2. Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) – Woods had won 14 consecutive majors when leading after 54 holes, a streak Yang ended, but when you think about it, Tiger was going to lose one sooner or later. The fact that he got to 14 is mind-blowing in a game where the third-round leader wins about half the time. Yang had won the Honda Classic five months earlier, but that’s no attempt to downsize his landmark achievement. Woods’ on- and off-course troubles since help explain what happened last August at Hazeltine.

3. Todd Hamilton (2004 British) – A triumph very similar to Yang’s, as Hamilton had also won the Honda and basically had to knock off one superstar (Ernie Els) to claim his prize. It was an exciting final round, one that featured Phil Mickelson’s only foray into contention at a British, but the four-hole playoff between Hamilton and Els was decided on the Big Easy’s bogey at the par-3 17th. Els hasn’t been the same since. Come to think of it, neither has Hamilton.

4. Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA) – Some might rank this one higher because Micheel basically fell off the face of the competitive Earth immediately afterward, unlikely ever to return. It was a strange week on a very difficult course, reflected by a leaderboard full of guys you’d never suspect would become major champions. The Micheel-Chad Campbell duel down the stretch was fun to watch, however, and when the winner parked a 7-iron inches from the flag on the 18th, his 15 minutes of fame was already winding down.

5. Paul Lawrie (1999 British) – One glass slipper shattered on the 72nd hole, another discovered in the ensuing four-hole playoff. Jean Van de Velde’s unforgettable train wreck on Carnoustie’s 18th obviously turned Lawrie into the most serendipitous of Cinderellas, but this was a tournament all but ruined by a ridiculous course setup. Six over got you into the playoff, which included Justin Leonard, and though Lawrie was outstanding in overtime, it was the last we’ve seen of him.

6. Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open) – Another case of a peculiar champion on a golf course that had gotten out of control. Neither man in Sunday’s final pairing (Goosen, Jason Gore) broke 80, clearing the way for Campbell, who had contended at the 1995 British and collected a half-dozen or so notable victories worldwide. Woods was the only guy to apply any heat on the final nine, but a bogey on the 16th ended any chance he had. As former USGA setup man Tom Meeks proved that week, even a classic layout such as Pinehurst No. 2 can become a trampoline if you mess with it enough.

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7. Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British) – As spectacular as he looked at St Andrews, he still showed up with virtually nothing in terms of major-championship credentials. Despite a formidable list of guys within striking distance (Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson), nobody so much as threw a scare at the South African. To say the best player won this tournament, however, is a statement that cannot be argued.

8. Rich Beem (2002 PGA) – He arrived at Hazeltine hot, having won at Castle Pines the two weeks prior, and left on fire, surviving a torrid finishing kick from Woods, who had birdied the final three holes while playing two groups ahead. Like Hamilton and Michael Campbell, Beem’s major title looks more surprising now because he hasn’t won since. The likeable Beemer will always be remembered for the little jig he broke into after tapping in at the 18th to defeat Tiger by one. As victory dances go, that ranks a lot higher than eighth.

9. Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters) – We don’t get a lot of stunners at Augusta National because the field is smaller, but this one makes the bottom of my list with mixed feelings. Immelman remains an exceptional talent who was highly touted upon turning pro in 1999, but his career has failed to approach even modest expectations. He won the ’08 Masters without a fight, much like Oosthuizen did Sunday, which might have as much to do with the surprise factor as the guy who ends up hoisting the trophy. You can analyze this crazy game all you want but sometimes, things just don’t make a whole lot of sense.