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The biggest upsets in PGA Championship history

Profile Picture: Josh Powell

May 18th, 2021

The countdown is on to the 2021 PGA Championship in Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Golf’s second major is more than a century old, and the list of former champions includes all the greats to have played the game.

But there have also been underdogs who upset the odds and created their own slice history in one of the most prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour.

Rich Beem (2002)

Although he turned pro in 1994, you’d have been as likely to see Beem selling car stereos as you would holing birdies through most of the 1990s. It was only when he won the Kemper Open as a PGA Tour rookie in 1999 that golf really took focus.

In 2002, he won the International, but a fortnight later was still overlooked by many bettors for the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. An opening-round 72 was a good start, but it got even better Friday, when he carded a 6-under 66 to move into a five-way tie for the lead. Not bad for just his fourth start in a major.

Another level 72 Saturday kept Beem in contention on a difficult day of scoring, but Open winner Justin Leonard, who had three top-five finishes in the PGA Championship already, was now three strokes clear.

Three bogeys and a double through the first nine holes sunk Leonard’s chances, while Beem shot 2-under through nine, with his main challenger Tiger Woods. Beem had a one-stroke lead that suddenly turned to three, courtesy of an eagle on the 11th. Woods birdied the last four holes, but Beem held on to win by a stroke.

Beem missed 11 of the next 15 cuts at the PGA Championship, and his best other finish was 36th in 2012, but nobody can take away that remarkable win in 2002.

Shaun Micheel (2003) 

Just 12 months later, there was another surprise winner.

Micheel taught himself how to play golf in Memphis as a youngster, after his parents bought a home on a golf course. He turned pro in 2002 but never made much impact and barely held onto his tour card at times.

Going into the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in New York, Micheel was ranked 169th in the world and was still without a win on tour after more than 160 attempts. However, over the next four days, he became one of golf’s best underdog stories.

An opening round of 69 put him in a tie for sixth, with Phil Mickelson and Rod Pampling in the lead at 4-under. But as everybody else faltered Friday, Micheel excelled. He shot 68 to move to 3-under and take the lead in the tournament.

After 54 holes, the lead was split between Micheel and Chad Campbell, but Campbell blew his chances with three bogeys on the first seven holes of the final round. Instead, South African Tim Clark, another PGA Tour maiden, made his move on Micheel, but that didn’t last long, as he bogeyed holes 10, 11, and 12.

Micheel played solid golf on the final day to win by two strokes and pocket just more than $1 million. He played in almost 400 PGA Tour events, with the 2003 PGA Championship his lone win.

Y.E. Yang (2009)

Yang’s upset victory at Hazeltine is as much about him as it is about the game’s G.O.A.T., Woods.

Going into the final round, Woods had a two-stroke lead over Yang. Woods was a 14-time major winner, a winner of more than 65 tour events, he’d topped the money list in eight of the last 11 years, and he’d never lost a major after he led through 54 holes.

Yang, on the other hand, only had one PGA Tour win, the Honda Classic that same year. He was ranked 110th in the world and had to regain his tour card through qualifying, after he finished 157th on the money list in 2008. In his seven previous majors, he missed the cut five times, and his best finish was 30th.

Somehow Yang came out on top. Woods’ two-shot lead disappeared by the time they hit the tee box on the fifth hole, and the Korean took the lead when he chipped in for an eagle on the 14th. Tiger couldn’t claw it back, and a closing birdie from Yang, followed by a Woods bogey, meant the underdog won by three strokes.

John Daly (1991)

Daly’s 1991 season was his first on tour, after he finished 12th at the 1990 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. It was his fourth time of trying, but boy was it worth the wait. Daly went from unknown to national hero in the space of just 96 hours.

He wasn’t even expected to play in the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, as he was the ninth and final alternate. Nick Price had to drop out, because his wife was due to go into labor, so Daly was told he was in the day before the event, and he took off for the seven-hour drive to the course.

Daly arrived at midnight. He had never seen course layout, so he relied on Price’s caddy, Jeff Medlin, to guide him around the course. Daly’s “grip it and rip it” style worked a treat, as he dismantled the difficult course from the tee box. He followed up an opening-round 69 with a 67, which gave him a one-stroke lead, and after 54 holes, he was three clear.

Nobody got within two shots of Daly on the final day, as he closed with a 71 to become a golfing legend and pocket a winner’s check of $230,000.

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