When the P.G.A. Championship finishes on Sunday at Bellerive in Missouri, there’s a pretty good chance that the man lifting the trophy will be someone you don’t know all that well.
Over the years, the P.G.A. has earned a reputation as the most random of majors, dating to when John Daly won it in 1991 as the ninth alternate and 168th ranked player in the world. Statistically, this isn’t exactly fair: The median world ranking of major winners since 2000 is right about 10, regardless of which major we’re talking about.
But we’re not so interested in the times when a consistent major winner lifts the trophy: Tiger Woods has four P.G.A. wins, and Rory McIlroy has won twice in recent years. What catches the eye are those major winners who no one sees coming.
The P.G.A. stands out when looking only at those men who have won a single major in their careers. The P.G.A. has nine of them since 2000, as against seven or eight for the other majors. And they include some shocks.
The median world ranking of the lone major winners going into their P.G.A. titles this century was 48. By comparison, the Masters and the United States Open’s lone winners were much more predictable, averaging 12th and 16th in the world. The lowest ranked single-major winners to take the Masters stood at No. 29, Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman. (The multiple-major winners Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson were lower when they won.)
The Masters is particularly underdog-unfriendly because of its small field size: about 85, as against 156 in the other majors. You can’t pull an upset if you can’t get in the field.
The major that comes closest to the P.G.A. for throwing up surprise winners is the British Open, whose single-major winners average a ranking of 44. They include the biggest shock of all, No. 396 Ben Curtis. But only one other player outside the top 100 won the British Open. The P.G.A. has had three since 2000.
The P.G.A. is also by acclamation the least prestigious major and perhaps does not draw the laserlike focus of all the best players. In part to change this, the event is moving next year to May, when it will be the second major of the year instead of the fourth.
Here are the five most surprising P.G.A. winners of this century, unless this weekend provides a stranger one.
Jimmy Walker, 2016 (No. 48)
Other PGA Tour wins: five. Best finish in a different major: eighth. Currently ranked: No. 70.
Walker won five times in the three years leading up to the P.G.A., so had some bona fides. But he was mostly known for being the tour’s only astrophotographer.
He dominated at Baltusrol at age 37, winning wire-to-wire, the first to do so since Phil Mickelson in 2005. “For me, I feel like it was a matter of time,” Walker said. “It was a long time coming.”
Since then, though, he has struggled: no wins and one second place on tour.
Keegan Bradley, 2011 (No. 108)
Other PGA Tour wins: two. Best finish in a different major: fourth. Currently ranked: No. 65.
Bradley won the Byron Nelson, then, three months later, took the P.G.A. at Atlanta Athletic Club in his first major appearance. At 25 he was heralded as the future of golf. He won a World Golf Championships event a year later, for three wins in his first 48 starts.
But he has won nothing since, hurt in part by the ban on the anchored putting stroke. The switch to a conventional putter was “tougher than I thought,” he said last year.
Y.E. Yang, 2009 (No. 110)
Other PGA Tour wins: one. Best finish in different major: third. Currently ranked: No. 317.
All Yang did at age 27 was beat Tiger Woods at Hazeltine in what The New York Times described as “one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history.”
“You never know in life: This might be my last win as a golfer,” Yang, smiling, said through an interpreter. Not quite. He did win once on the European tour and once on the Japanese tour since.
Shaun Micheel, 2003 (No. 169)
Other PGA Tour wins: none. Best finish in a different major: 22nd. Currently ranked: No. 2,043.
The most unlikely winner of them all, Micheel had never won on tour in 163 starts. At age 34, he drilled a 7-iron to within inches on the 18th hole at Oak Hill to take the title, completing a year of four first-time major winners (alongside Mike Weir, Jim Furyk and Curtis).
“I really can’t believe that this happened to me,” Micheel said. “I just was trying to make the cut. I know that sounds pretty simple, but really that was my main goal. I probably would have been happy with that.”
He placed second three years later, but is still waiting for another tour win.
Rich Beem, 2002 (No. 73)
Other PGA Tour wins: two. Best finish in a different major: 15th. Currently ranked: No. 2,043.
Beem came in hot, having won the International two weeks before for his second tour win. He held off Woods to win the P.G.A. at Hazeltine at age 31. He was seven years removed from temporarily quitting golf to sell cellphones and car stereos. “I’m so flabbergasted about this, you have no idea,” he said.
Beem has played in 31 more majors, and his best finish is 15th.
All former champions get into the P.G.A., so this week, Beem, Micheel, Yang, Bradley and Walker are all scheduled to tee it up and try to recapture the magic. Betfair lists Bradley at 150-1 and Walker at 350-1. The others are 1,000-1.