10 Most Unlikely Golf Major Winners
Many people enjoy playing golf and watching the major golf championships, while others only watch the tournaments on TV, hoping for a chance to head out to the course one day. But the golf major champions have dedicated a greater portion of their lives to playing the game. After all, you’re not going to win if you don’t play the game.
Often the stories surrounding the major golf championships, or majors as they can affectionately be called, can be quite intriguing. Often we assume that they’re only played by wealthy, privileged men born in the USA, yet many of the players have come from some interesting and diverse backgrounds.
Here are ten of the most unlikely golf major champions from the recent history of golf.
1. Jason Day
Jason Day is a pro golfer who achieved the World Number 1 spot in World Golf Ranking in 2015. He may be considered an unlikely champion as he was born in the Philippines, and has Australian citizenship. He moved with his parents to Australia in the 80s.
Last year, he was a multiple winner of the WGC Match Play, joining the same club as Tiger Woods and Geoff Ogilvy. At the 2015 PGA Championships he did a record twenty strokes under par, which earned him the number three spot in the world.
Jason has dual citizenship in Australia and the USA. He currently has a residence in Westerville, Ohio where he lives with his family. Like many other golf players, Jason started playing golf quite young. In Australia, his dad would take him golfing to the Beaudesert Golf Club. There, Jason played as a junior member, and he was only six at the time. When you’re a junior, you’ll allowed to play six holes a day at this course.
When Jason was eight years old, his family moved to Rockhampton. During this time he won golfing events among the districts. Sadly, his dad, Alvin Day, passed away when Jason was only twelve. Dening Day, his mom, sent him to a school that had a golf course, Kooralbyn International School. After Korralbyn closed down, his coach recommended the “At the Hills International College”. There, he was able to continue his golfing, as they had a golf academy.
Jason Day was actually inspired by Tiger Woods. One day, he borrowed a book on Tiger Woods from his roommate. This gave him the inspiration to practice his golf at least three times a day: early morning, lunchtime, and evening. Jason would challenge himself by noting Tiger Woods’s golfing scores, and aiming for the same.
Jason managed to earn his first big win at the 2000 Australian Masters junior event, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he turned pro and entered the majors. This notable event occurred after a win at the Master of the Amateurs. He then began playing the PGA Tour Events in July 2006. He had winnings that season of over $160,000. In 2007, he became the youngest man to ever win the Nationwide Tour. In 2010, he was the youngest Australian to win a PGA Tour with the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
Jason Day continues with the majors through 2017. He has also just signed a deal with Nike to wear their clothing, even though Nike no longer makes golf equipment. This is apparently worth over $10 million a year.
2. Michael Shane Campbell
Michael Campbell is originally from New Zealand. He has a Maori and Scottish heritage, and was born in Hawera, New Zealand.
As a young boy, he tried many sports, including rugby, squash, softball, and table tennis. At seven years old, he began to play golf. He played at the Patea golf course, which was fenced to keep sheep out. It was his uncle who introduced him to the game, but he was also influenced by his dad who also played the game. After his family moved to Titahi Bay, he joined the junior ranks at Paraparaumu. He experienced success in the 1995 European Tour.
This golfer is on the top ten list, as he had some sudden, impressive majors wins one year, before crashing and disappearing. His most notable year was winning the 2005 US Open. This earned him the title of “2005 European Tour Player of the Year” after a fantastic season. He also won the PGA Tour in 2005, and scored ahead of Tiger Woods. 2005 was his breakthrough year.
He’s had about fifteen major wins over the years, but hasn’t done a whole lot to impress us since 2005. Still, his accomplishments are worth noting for the list, as in 2005, he earned the richest prize ever in golf, £1,000,000, in the HSBC World Match Play Championship. As for the Masters, he didn’t make the cut in 2005.
From 2009 to 2012 he earned no top ten finishes, but a US Open win did enable him to keep his player’s rights. That year he finished third during the Portugal Masters, and 8th in the Hong Kong Open.
Like many golfers, he suffered his share of injuries, which he wasn’t quite able to recover from. His golfing journey has been compared to having plenty of support to climb a mountain, but no support after you fall down.
Today, he’s forty-eight years old and considered retired from professional golf as of 2015. He lives with his family in Sydney, Australia.
3. Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth has broken the records for being the second-youngest champion in the history of the Masters. He was born in 1993 in Dallas Texas. He won the US Junior Amateur Championship twice, before heading to the University of Texas.
Like most pro golfers today, he began in the amateurs. His dad was a college basketball star, so he inherited his passion for athletics. He tried soccer, football, and basketball before settling on golf. Unlike some of the other pro golfers today, he didn’t have a pro golf course at hand. He’d mow the lawn at his house as low as he possibly could, so he could practice his putting. Finally, his parents bought him membership access at the Brookhaven Country Club so he could play at proper golfing facilities.
At the age of twelve, Jordan was taking golfing lessons from former golf pro Cameron McCormick. Throughout his schooling he established himself as an excellent golfer.
In 2009 and 2011, he won the US Junior Amateur Championship. In 2012, he turned pro, and became the youngest man in over eighty-two years to win at a PGA Tour event. He also did well at the Masters, and the US Open. The last time a young person won was back in 1922, and he was the first young person to win two major events before his 22nd birthday.
After he achieved pro status, he finished in the Top 10 for the Web.com tour, and then tied for seventh at the Tampa Bay Championship in 2013. In 2014, he placed second at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He earned a victory at the 2015 PGA Tour. This is what then earned him the green jacket, and the record for lowest scores. He has been the first man to have multiple majors before his 22nd birthday, last accomplished by Gene Sarazen in 1922.
Jordan did well in 2016, with a win at the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions that will guarantee him a spot at the majors in 2017.
4. Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy was born in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland in 1989. Without the support of his parents Rory McIlroy may have never made it to the majors. How many players would work extra-long hours, just so their son could achieve his dreams?
Rory may have come from a poor background, as his parents struggled to provide for the family, but their extra hours allowed their son to enjoy a middle class lifestyle. It was his dad who had originally introduced him to the game of golf. Gerry McIlroy was also a good golfer, though he never played the majors. Rory’s mom worked in a 3M factory, while his father worked three different jobs, including cleaning toilets, so his son could learn golf. Both of his parents took on extra shifts to cover the additional expenses of allowing their son to golf.
Rory would ask his dad to take him to play golf every day. One day he received his own golf club as a present, and even went so far as to sleep with it each night. When he joined the Holywood Golf Club, he became the youngest member at the club.
He currently lives in Portrush Ireland, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He plays in both the PGA Tours and the European Tours. He’s been a major champion four times. He has earned the same achievements as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods—being one of these three players who has each achieved a win of the three majors by the age of twenty-five years old.
When he was only seventeen years old, he topped the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Rory first turned pro in 2007. He had his first major win at the European Tour in 2009, then the PGA Tour in 2010. He was the first young player to ever earn £10 million in earnings on the European Tour.
Rory has played for Ireland, Europe, and Great Britain as an amateur and a pro golfer. He was on the European team that won the first three Ryder Cup matches in 2016. In 2017, he’ll continue playing the PGA Tour.
5. Ben Hogan
Ben was born as William Ben Hogan in 1912, in Stephenville, Texas. Ben Hogan is no longer alive today, but has earned his place as one of the most famous players in golfing history. He’s had the nicknames The Hawk, The Wee Iceman, and Bantam Ben. He’s notable for being an unlikely golf champion as he had a rough start to life, and his first few years as a pro didn’t seem to offer a favourable career outcome.
When he was just nine years old, his dad, a blacksmith, committed suicide right in front of him. It was then up to him and his brother to make money to feed their family to help out their mom, who was a seamstress.
Ben started by selling newspapers, but when he got a job as a caddie for better pay, his luck changed. This was his official introduction to the game of golf. It was also the spot when Byron Nelson caddied—see more information about him below. These two golf champions just happened to start their golfing careers by working as caddies at the same golf course.
Glen Garden Country Club was a nine hole golf course that spanned seven miles. When Ben turned sixteen, he had to leave, due to club rules. He played his game on three other courses in the region. In 1930, he dropped out of high school to play pro golf at 18 years old. He had some false starts, and often went broke from his choice to become a pro golfer. It was nearly a decade before his first pro win.
In February 1949, he was in a terrible car and bus accident. It was feared he would never golf again. He spent his time recovering by going on long walks. By November 1949, he was ready to resume the PGA Tour.
His 1953 season was fantastic, with winning five of the six tournaments he entered. He earned the Triple Crown of Golf. He held this spot in the hall of fame until Tiger Woods displaced him in 2000 and 2001.
He often spurned the PGA Championships, as these involved 36 holes per day, and after his car accident, he could only confidently manage 18 per day. Ben Hogan is noted for his golf swing. Many pros have studied it, trying to break it down into a teachable formula. Since then, his teaching theories have been used by many golfers.
Ben died in July 1997. He’s still noted for his golf swing theory, and his accurate ball-striking abilities. During his career he won nine major championships, which tied him with Gary Player in fourth for all-time. He achieved notable golfing success until about 1960, but continued playing the majors for a decade after that. He retired from golf in 1971.
Ben is only one of five major golfers who has won all four major championships, along with Gene Sarazen, Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus.
6. Byron Nelson
Byron Nelson was born in 1912 and lived until 2006. He has been placed with other golf greats such as Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, as they were all born in the same year. In fact, Byron worked with Ben as a caddie on the same golf course, which is how both began their pro golf careers. He’s in the unlikely hall of fame due to working as a young child to support his hobby, and for his survival from suffering typhoid fever.
When he was eleven years old, he lost half his body weight to the fever. As a result, he has never been able to have children. When he first started working at Glen Garden Country Club, caddies were not allowed to play. He defied them by playing in the dark. Later, he met his competition, Ben Hogan. Even though the pair were golfing rivals, they remained friends into their adult years. At that point, Byron found it hard to deal with his friend’s success, so they respectfully parted ways.
Byron has played many tournaments throughout his career, but is often most famous for having won eleven consecutive tournaments in a row. In 1945 alone, he won an impressive total of eighteen tournaments.
Surprisingly, Byron decided to retire at the age of thirty-four years old so he could become a rancher. But he didn’t completely put golf aside. He became a commentator for the HP Byron Nelson Championship, a PGA Tour event which was the first time one was named after a pro golfer. He also continued to play in the annual PGA Tours. He placed in the top ten over six times from 1947 to 1955, and was in 15th spot in 1965.
In 1974, Byron earned the Bob Jones Award, which is the highest ever award from the USA Golf Association. In 1997, he earned the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award, and became a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
7. Angel Cabrera
Angel Cabrera was born in 1969, and is forty-seven years old. He was born in Cordoba, Argentina, and currently still ives there. He’s on the list due to his poor early childhood, and has been the first Argentine to win the US Open and Masters. Today, he’s called El Pato, which is Spanish for The Duck, due to a waddling gait.
He originally first joined the PGA Tour in 2007, and remains there. He has achieved champion status. In the past, he did the European Tour in 1996. Overall, he’s won an impressive fifty-two wins. He has won the US Open in 2007, and the Masters in 2009.
Angel’s dad was a handyman, with his mom a maid. His parents split up when he was young, so he was brought up by a grandmother. When he was ten years old he became a caddy at the Cordoba Country Club. This is where he learned to play golf, and he’d play for money with the other caddies.
He was determined to succeed with his good swing. One of the members of the club caught his eye, and bought him a set of clubs when he was sixteen. He lived with his grandmother until he was sixteen, where he moved into a partner’s house. They had two children who are also pro golf players.
Angel was noted as having an extremely wide swing on the course, as well as smoking at every hole. He entered pro golf in 2008. He qualified for the PGA Tour’s school in 2011, though was eliminated.
Angel had a good year at the 2007 US Open. This was his first major win. In 2009, he won the Masters. He played well in 2011 to 2014, and took a downturn in 2015. He earned the Presidents award in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2013. He still plays golf.
8. Lee Trevino
Lee Trevino is currently seventy-seven years old and lives in Dallas, Texas. He has recently played the Champions Tour, with success in the PGA Tour, with over ninety wins. His young life started out with poverty challenges.
His family had Mexican ancestry, and he was raised by only his mom, and his grandfather who was a gravedigger. He sporadically attended school, and often would take on jobs to earn money for the family. He was only five years old when he began working in the cotton fields.
Lee was first introduced to golf when his uncle gave him some golf balls and an old club. He’d practice by sneaking onto the local courses to play. Soon, he had a job as a caddy at the Dallas Athletic Club, and worked their full-time. He was able to practice golf during his time there, as they had holes for the caddies behind their shack.
Lee worked four years in the military, but continued playing golf. He was a man who was friendly and humorous, and the press loved to quote him. Later on in his career he said no one laughed at his jokes until he won the Open in 1968. He was hit by lightning while playing a game during the 1975 Western Open.
He has won one Japan Golf Tour, twice in the European Tour, and twenty-nine times in the PGA Tours. He’s also won twice in each of the Masters Tournament, the US Open, The Open Championship, and the PGA Championship. He entered the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1981, and was the PGA Player of the Year in 1971. He earned the Byron Nelson Award in 1980. He has tried as recently as 2000 in The Open Championship, but did not make the cut.
9. David Berganio, Jr.
David Berganio, Jr. was born in LA in 1969, and he also just happens to still play for the PGA Tour. He currently lives in Sylmar, California. His life began as an orphan in a poor area of LA. He wasn’t able to pursue his interest in golf until a priest gave him a set of golf clubs as a gift.
David won the US Amateur Public Links in 1991 and 1993, during his time at the University of Arizona. He became a professional golfer in 1993. He’s won the Nationwide Tour and won three times, and has done the PGA Tour throughout many of his years.
His three professional wins have been in the Nike Monterey Open 1996, Nike Permian Basin Open, 1999, and Buy.com Omaha Classic in 2000.
Like many players, he suffered back injuries, but still continued playing through 2004 to 2008. He had a full season in 2009. Just two years ago he nearly won the PGA playoffs. He continues to play, despite his three meagre pro wins, and is not easily dissuaded from all the tough competition on the course today.
10. Calvin Peete
One clear characteristic of most golfers on this page is that they have all begun playing golf at an early age, particularly those who have succeeded in pro golf. That hasn’t been the case with Calvin Peete. Calvin was born in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan and passed through childhood without being influenced by golf.
What’s so notable about Calvin is that he didn’t begin playing golf until he was in his twenties, as opposed to the top pro golfers who have learned golf in early childhood. It seems like that could be a prerequisite for succeeding in pro golf, but it was never applicable to Calvin. Today, he’s considered the most successful African-American to play the PGA Tour, before Tiger Woods hit the scene.
His life started out poor, and he suffered from a broken arm that never properly healed. He first learned golf when he sold goods to migrant workers in Rochester, New York. He’d play on the golf course at Genesee Valley Park.
Calvin entered golf championships with the Ryder Cup. He quickly excelled at the game, naturally picking up the skills as he went along. He played in the PGA Tour, the Japan Golf Tour, and the Champions Tour. He won a notable fourteen professional wins, the Byron Nelson Award in 1984, and the Vardon Trophy that same year. Calvin died of lung caner in 2015 at the age of seventy-one years old.
Generally, golf may seem like a rich man’s sport as it can cost money buying all the equipment you need—golf clubs, balls, a golf trolley, GPS, and more—but these ten most unlikely golf major champions have made it past poverty, injuries, and illness to succeed in the highly competitive game of golf.
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