The 10 Biggest Upsets In British Open History
Jean Van De Velde set the standard, but others had epic meltdowns. Ranking the 10 greatest Open Championship upsets of all time.
On one side of The Pond, it is called “The Open Championship.” On the other side (in the United States), it is known as the British Open. It is the fourth and final major of the season, and it will begin July 20 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club with Cameron Smith the defending champion.
Once again, we will have LIV and PGA golfers competing together as we continue to learn more about the merger of those tour tours and the European Tour, and whether folks in Saudi Arabia or folks in Florida will ultimately be calling the shots. Yes, golf has a peace treaty of sorts, but right now it looks more like an armistice because so few people are privy to the details.
Whatever the case, the viewing public will care more about whether we will see an unlikely winner as we did at the U.S. Open when Wyndham Clark defeated Rory McElroy by one stroke, or whether it will be more like the Masters when Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka dueled down the stretch, and Phil Mickelson shot a final round 65 to tie for second place.
It is the oldest golf tournament in the world, and the 2023 Open Championship will be played at the course also known as Hoylake for the first time since 2014 when Rory McIlroy won by two strokes. And there will be reminders of how in 2006, the conditions were so dry and the fairways were so firm that Tiger Woods won the tournament by pulling out his driver just once over the entire four rounds.
The British Open winner takes possession of the Claret Jug for one year after his name is etched onto the trophy. He must then return it, but is given a replica to keep. The best bet of that weekend is that the engraver will be shown on television waiting to receive a slip of paper announcing the official winner before he etches that champion’s name onto the jug.
Ranking the Top 10 Biggest Upsets in British Open History
- Thomas Bjorn, 2003 Defeat at Royal St. George’s.
Bjorn led by two strokes as he strolled onto the 16th hole. The par-3 proved to be his ultimate undoing. Bjorn buried the ball in a bunker on the edge of the green. Two ensuing attempts each rolled back into the bunker. A frustrated Bjorn was forced to settle for an ill-timed double bogey and fell into a first-place tie. A botched 6-foot putt for par ruined his 17th hole, and Ben Curtis leapfrogged him to take the title.
- Tony Jacklin, 1972 Defeat at Muirfield
Jacklin and Lee Trevino were tied through 16 holes of the final round, and Jacklin landed on the par-5 green in three shots. But Jacklin’s birdie attempt slid 3 feet past the hole, and he missed the comebacker. Trevino put the tournament away on the 18th hole to defend his title.
- Hale Irwin, 1983 Defeat at Royal Birkdale.
Irwin lined up to putt for par on the 14th hole, looking to stay at 6-under and locked in a tie with Tom Watson atop the leaderboard. Instead, his putter landed short of the ball and bounced above the target, resulting in a complete whiff. It cost Irwin a valuable stroke and ruined his momentum. Irwin followed with a bogey and ultimately wound up in fifth place.
- Adam Scott, 2012 Defeat at Royal Lytham & St. Annes
The Australian bogeyed each of Sunday’s final four holes, including a stunning three-putt debacle on 16. Ernie Els went from a sure-fire second-place finish to winning the event, and Scott's fall from grace hit its final note with a bogey on 18. Els birdied 18, while Scott failed to force a two-man playoff by missing his par putt.
- Greg Norman, 1989 Defeat at Royal Troon
Norman came from seven shots down to shoot a 64 Sunday, matching the lowest score in British Open history and forcing a four-hole playoff against Mark Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady. He birdied the first two extra holes, and after a bogey on the third playoff hole, he headed to the 18th locked in a tie with Calcavecchia. His tee shot on the final showdown landed along a bunker. He followed that up by burying the next shot in yet another bunker, and his third shot of the hole rolled out-of-bounds.
- John Cook, 1992 Defeat at Muirfield
Cook carried a two-stroke lead into the final two holes and could have cushioned his lead with a birdie attempt on par-5 No. 17 but botched a 2-foot putt and settled for par. Meanwhile, Nick Faldo charged up the leaderboard and put the pressure on Cook, who couldn't handle the situation. A rough hole ended in a bogey, and Faldo took the Claret Jug.
- Tiger Woods, 2002 Defeat at Muirfield
Woods entered this tournament in pursuit of a hallowed Grand Slam, but that dream crashed during a damp third round. In severe winds and rain, Mother Nature got the better of Tiger that day as he shot 81, the highest score of his major career, allowing Ernie Els to win.
- Darren Clarke, 2011 Victory at Royal St. George’s
Despite his reputation as a world-class player, Clarke wasn't on anyone's radar at Royal St George's -- having not finished in the top 10 of a major championship in more than a decade. He was also 42 at the time, not necessarily the age to be picking up your first major. But with one of the best ball-striking weeks of his life, Clarke won by three shots over Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson to keep alive a nice stretch of success at majors by players from Northern Ireland.
- Louis Oosthuisen, 2010 Victory at St. Andrew’s
The South African took advantage of a good weather draw early and never let up, winning by seven shots and forcing ESPN broadcasters to scramble to learn how to pronounce his name. Ranked 54th in the world and with just one European Tour win coming in, the 27-year-old Oosthuizen led for the final 48 holes. He had six subsequent runner-up finishes in majors, but at the moment, this was a major surprise.
- Jean Van De Velde, 1999 Defeat at Carnoustie
Van de Velde suffered an epic collapse that nobody who witnessed it will ever forget. He carried a three-shot lead into the final hole of the tournament, but his drive landed in the rough, and his ensuing shot plunked a grandstand near the green, sending the ball back into treacherous rough. His third shot landed along water, and he opted to accept a penalty shot. The circus finally ended when he made a putt for a triple bogey. The result was a three-man playoff, which was ultimately won by Paul Lawrie.
Parameters of Rankings
When looking at Open Championship surprises, we went with epic collapses and players with major reputations faltering badly to bring about these upsets. Of course, Van De Velde’s epic meltdown stands in a class by itself, and anyone who watched him takes his shoes and socks off and wade into the Swilcan Burn can attest. But the bottom line was that gamblers who thought they had a sure thing heading into the Sunday final rounds of these tournaments learned one of gambling’s biggest rules: There is no such thing as a sure thing.
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