History

Amazing Tale of The Open’s Most Improbable Champion, Todd Hamilton

Todd Hamilton was the surprise winner of the last Open at Troon in 2004. Credit: Sky Sports
Todd Hamilton was the surprise winner of the last Open at Troon in 2004. Credit: Sky Sports

It was 2007, and PGA professional Todd Hamilton had just come off what had to be one of the worst PGA Tour seasons in history. His first 12 events that year had been especially awful: CUT, 72, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT, CUT.

The next week, Hamilton played the weekend for the first time in over three months when he finished T75 at The Players Championship. From there, the rest of his season got only marginally better: WD, 66, CUT, CUT, CUT, 73, CUT, CUT, T37, T66, T74, T63, CUT, CUT, T66.

His stats were not any better than his results. He ranked 182nd in shots gained: off-the-tee, 195th in greens in regulation percentage, and 177th in putting average. He finished that season 207th in the FedEx Cup Standings, 212th on the PGA Tour Money list, and his world ranking had plummeted to 926th.

HAMILTON'S 2007 RANKINGS

207

FEDEX CUP

212

MONEY LIST

926

WORLD RANKING

It was a long fall from grace for the man who, just three seasons prior, had triumphantly made himself known to the golf world when he beat Ernie Els in a playoff to win the 2004 Open Championship.

To capture the Claret Jug, Hamilton had to play the back nine under par, and hold off a cavalcade of elite competitors which included Els, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Retief Goosen.

Hamilton had to be concerned that if he did not turn things around and get back on the championship path he was on when he won The Open, that he would plummet into PGA Tour irrelevancy and knowledge of his name would be relegated to the bar trivia circuit with the likes of Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel.

One-hit wonders in major championships have become surprisingly rare. Between largely exclusive fields and the meticulous attention that is given to majors by the elites of golf, it becomes difficult for an unknown to sneak in under the radar at a major and steal a win.

The following is a list of golfers who have won at least one major since the 2010 season:

Dustin Johnson
Danny Willett
Jason Day
Zach Johnson
Jordan Spieth
Rory McIlroy
Martin Kaymer
Bubba Watson
Jason Dufner
Phil Mickelson
Justin Rose
Adam Scott
Ernie Els
Webb Simpson
Keegan Bradley
Darren Clarke
Charl Schwartzel
Louis Oosthuizen
Graeme McDowell

These men account for all 26 majors during that time span, and just about every one of them (it’s too early to say on Willett) has had a successful career outside of major victories. Whether Hamilton counts as one is subjective; it depends on the definition of “one-hit wonder”, but if he does qualify, he does not have a lot of company in that club.

Contrary to popular opinion, Hamilton did not just appear at Royal Troon in 2004 out of thin air. Nor was he actually a nightmare figment of Ernie Els’ imagination. When he teed up that week, Hamilton had a respectable world ranking of #56. That is a considerably better ranking than John Daly, Michael Campbell, Paul Lawrie, Angel Cabrera, and Y.E. Yang had when they won their first majors. It’s only two spots lower than Louis Oosthuizen’s ranking when he blitzed the Open field in 2010.

 

Hamilton qualified for that Open based on two criteria: for being in the top 50 of the OWGR on May 27 of that year, and for being in the top three on the Japan Tour’s Order of Merit from the previous season. Hamilton was a 38-year-old PGA Tour rookie that season, basically the PGA’s equivalent of Chris Weinke’s rookie year with the Carolina Panthers.

He turned pro in 1987 and had most of his pre-Troon success on the Japan Tour. Hamilton, an American, is that tour’s third all-time earnings leader among non-Japanese players (Brendan Jones, David Smail). His 2004 season prior to The Open was also successful, highlighted by a victory at the Honda Classic where a birdie-birdie finish put him one stroke ahead of Davis Love III.

The two wins made him the slam-dunk choice of the PGA Tour 2004 Rookie of the Year.

Since 2004, however, Hamilton has rarely found his major form. Winning at Royal Troon gave him a five-year Tour exemption.

Those five years were riddled with missed cuts and disappointing finishes.

2005: 31 events, 14 missed cuts, no top 10s, $559,495 in earnings

2006: 27 events, 19 missed cuts, one top 10, $165,152 in earnings

2007: 28 events, 18 missed cuts, no top 10s, $109,776 in earnings

2008: 28 events, 11 missed cuts, no top 10s, $537,598 in earnings

2009: 29 events, 18 missed cuts, one top 10, $605,225 in earnings

Total during exempt years: 143 events, 80 missed cuts (56% of his tournaments), 2 top 10s, 0 victories.

HAMILTON'S EXEMPT SEASONS

143

TOURNAMENTS

80

MISSED-CUTS

0

WINS

In 19 majors during that span, Hamilton was only relevant once: a T15 at the 2009 Masters. He was in contention through three rounds before a final round 73 left him 8 strokes behind Angel Cabrera.

Things did not get better from there. In 2010, Hamilton, no longer exempt, made just four cuts in the 20 events he played. In 2011, he played in 11 events and made the cut in five. In 2012, he played the weekend four times in the 10 events he qualified for.

Starting in 2013, Hamilton spent most of his time on the Web.com tour. Despite a demonstrably lower level of competition, Hamilton struggled there too.

Web.com Tour years
2013: 14 events, 9 missed cuts, $13,712 in earnings
2014: 10 events, 8 missed cuts, $3,768 in earnings
2015: 6 events, 5 missed cuts, $2,660 in earnings

In those 30 events, Hamilton’s best finish was a T21 at his very first tournament. A T36 was his only other top 40.

HAMILTON'S WEB.COM TOUR NUMBERS

30

TOURNAMENTS

22

MISSED-CUTS

0

TOP 10s

Now 50 years old, Hamilton makes his living on The Champions Tour, for which he qualified by being a former PGA Tour winner. It is an exemption that can only be used for two seasons.

Given his failures on the Web.com Tour, he is doing quite well on the Champions Tour. In 11 Champions events, he has made the cut 10 times, and has five finishes in the top 25, including a T6 at the Chubb Classic.

It is a promising stretch of golf for a man whose PGA Tour career was defined by his copious failures after reaching the pinnacle of golf achievement.

 

Next week, Hamilton will again tee it up at The Open Championship, and for the first time since that thrilling 2004 tournament, The Open is being held at Royal Troon. Hamilton is hoping that familiar surroundings will allow him again, to feel the high he has been chasing for 12 long years.

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