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Graeme McDowell

The unlikely lads: 9 US Open winners who upset the form book

Sometimes even the toughest major can throw out a surprise champion. Alex Perry picks out few of his favourites
 

Will this year’s US Open yield an unlikely winner come Sunday? Here are nine times the United States’ national championship was topped by a rank outsider…

Surprise US Open winners

Francis Ouimet (1913)

Francis Ouimet

Such was the allure of having Harry Vardon and Ted Ray – who, by the summer of 1913, had six Open Championships and a US Open between them – play in their tournament, the USGA moved their national championship to September in order to accommodate the biggest names in the game.

But Vardon and Ray, as well as the watching world, were stunned when a young amateur by the name of Francis Ouimet forced a playoff with the superstar pair at The Country Club which he went on to win. 

The story of Ouimet, who grew up in a house barely a pitching wedge from the Brookline fairways, was so incredible that it even got the Disney treatment in the 2005 film The Greatest Game Ever Played

Jack Fleck (1955)

Jack Fleck

It was one of the biggest upsets in major championship history, and no one saw it coming. Literally.

Attempting to claim a record fifth US Open in 1955, Ben Hogan closed with a round of 70 at Olympic Club to sit in the clubhouse with a two-shot lead over Jack Fleck.

With Fleck a novelty in the golfing world – a former local pro who had only been on the PGA Tour six-months – and Hogan being, well, Hogan, the consensus was the tournament was now a foregone conclusion. Despite Fleck still having a few holes left, NBC decided to sign off on the broadcast, congratulating Hogan and declaring him the winner.

But Fleck hadn’t read the script, birdying two of his last four holes to force an 18-hole playoff with his title rival.

Trailing by one on the final play-off hole, Hogan hooked his tee shot into the deep rough, and the nine-time major champion needed three hacks to get his ball back in the fairway. Fleck would make par to seal victory and secure one of the most improbable upsets in major history.

Hogan would go on to have nine more top 10s but added no further major wins to his haul, while Fleck’s career ended with just two more PGA Tour titles.

Orville Moody (1969)

Orville Moody

With the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and defending champion Lee Trevino in the field, no one gave Orville Moody a hope.

With only a handful of titles on the Korean Tour to his name, Moody needed to get through local and sectional qualifying to get into the US Open at Champions Golf Club.

And even when he found himself in second and three back of Millie Barber going into the final round, Moody was still a long shot given his rival’s impressive PGA Tour record in the years beforehand.

But the 14-year army veteran, nicknamed ‘Sarge’, carded a solid final-round 72 – six better than Barber – to lift what would turn out to be his only major and, indeed, sole PGA Tour title.

Moody and Barber would both go on to have tremendous success on the senior circuit.

Jerry Pate (1976)

Jerry Pate

The US Amateur champion of two years previous had already rocked up at the US Open in 1975 and walked away as the low amateur. But it was a different story 12 months later when, in his rookie season, he made his first major appearance as a pro at Atlanta Athletic Club as a sectional qualifier. 

In a field that included recent Players champion Jack Nicklaus, newly-crowned Master champion Raymond Floyd, and in-form Johnny Miller, Pate somehow found himself on the 72nd tee with a one-shot lead over Al Geiberger and Tom Weiskopf – both in the clubhouse at 1-under-par and preparing for a possible playoff that became increasingly likely when Pate found the rough.  

With more than 190 yards to the pin, and needing to not only escape the thick stuff but also carry the water that runs across the front of the green, Pate pulled out his 5-iron and produced one of the best shots in US Open history to snatch a kick-in birdie from the jaws of an almost certain bogey.

Steve Jones (1996)

Steve Jones

Having won four PGA Tour titles in 18 months in 1988 and ‘89, Steve Jones missed three years after a motorbike accident left him with ligament and joint damage. When he came through sectional qualifying for the 1996 US Open, the American hadn’t teed up in a major since the ‘91 Open and had fallen to 99th in the world rankings. 

Jones headed into the weekend at Oakland Hills not only needing to overhaul Payne Stewart, Ernie Els and Greg Norman, but hold off the likes of Davis Love, Jim Furyk, and Tom Lehmann.

And even when he found himself three back of Lehmann with just 12 holes to play, it felt like Jones was playing for second. But he clawed it back and when Lehmann, who would go on to win The Open a month later, failed to get up and down from the bunker at 18, Jones was left with the simplest of two-putts for the title.

Jones remains to this day the lowest-ranked player to win the US Open.

Michael Campbell (2005)

Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell had spent a bit of time in the world’s top 20 at the start of the millennium thanks to a nice run of victories on the European Tour, but his major record was abysmal. 

Aside from a tie for 3rd in the 1995 Open – where he led through 54 holes before falling away – the New Zealander’s 28 major appearances included 16 missed cuts and a DQ by the time the 2005 US Open rolled around.

A sectional qualifier at Walton Heath and now ranked 80th in the world, Campbell went into the final day at Pinehurst five back of two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen. 

The South African would crumble to an 11-over 81 as Campbell proved a picture of calm on a chaotic Sunday that saw Tiger Woods also make a late charge for a 10th major championship title. 

Geoff Ogilvy (2006)

Geoff Ogilvy

Everyone remembers what happened to Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie on that fateful day at Winged Foot, but it will always take a few moments to remember it was Geoff Ogilvy who took advantage of those infamous collapses.

Ogilvy’s career was plodding along nicely and he had already picked up one of his three World Golf Championship titles by the time he got to the 2006 US Open, but not many expected him to come out on top in one of the most brutal days in the competition’s history.

With four holes to play, the Australian was two back of Mickelson – who was surely, at last, going to get the win he wanted more than any other – and level with Montgomerie, who was playing incredibly well despite the conditions.

By the time it got to 18, a par for Mickelson or Montgomerie would have meant a major championship that meant so much to both of them for very different reasons, but they both carded double-bogeys and Ogilvy’s 2-over 72 was enough for a one-stroke win over the desperate pair.

Lucas Glover (2009)

Lucas Glover

The 2009 US Open will unlikely be marked down in the history books as a classic after a wet week at Bethpage forced a Monday finish with Lucas Glover and Ricky Barnes – the world numbers 70 and 934 respectively – tussling in the New York drizzle.

Glover had not made a cut in any of his previous three US Open finishes, and his major record to that date had more missed weekends than finishes, but he battled to a 73 and that was enough as a fifth day of play proved too much for Barnes.

You are probably more inclined to remember this tournament as the one where Phil Mickelson broke the record for most US Open runners-up finishes with five. He would go on to extend that to six at Merion in 2013, and he is still to complete his Grand Slam.

Graeme McDowell (2010)

2019 US Open (Golf)

Perhaps not the biggest shock given Graeme McDowell was ranked 37th in the world and had five European Tour titles to his name, but no one gave the Northern Irishman a chance when he was three back of a cruising Dustin Johnson and with a rampaging Tiger Woods hot on his heels.

Such was DJ’s dominance, McDowell later said everyone else in the field was “playing for second”, but the American buckled under the pressure, dropping five shots in the opening three holes on his way to a closing 82, and McDowell held his nerve to plot his way round Pebble Beach in 74 blows and a one-stroke victory at even-par.

McDowell was the first US Open winner from the United Kingdom since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and before that, you have to go back to Tommy Armour in 1927. No one from Ireland had ever won it. The victory also opened the floodgates for a raft of major champions from these small islands, including Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Justin Rose.

Alex Perry

Alex Perry

Alex has been the editor of National Club Golfer since 2017. A Devonian who enjoys wittering on about his south west roots, Alex moved north to join NCG after more than a decade in London, the last five of which were with ESPN. Away from golf, Alex follows Torquay United and spends too much time playing his PlayStation or his guitar and not enough time practising his short game.

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