Who was the lowest-ranked golfer to ever win one of golf’s four major championships? It’s certainly an interesting question but what one must remember is that the Official World Golf Ranking wasn’t created until 1986 so the answer has to come from that point on.
Interestingly enough, Jack Nicklaus was the first person to win a major following the institution of the OWGR, claiming his record 18th major and 73rd and final PGA Tour win with a historic victory at The Masters. The Golden Bear, then 46 years old, was ranked 33rd in the world at that time so it could actually be said that he was once the highest and lowest-ranked player to win a major championship. But we all know No. 33 isn’t going to be the answer to the question so let’s just dive in.
Only nine major championship winners have come from outside the top 100
Since the creation of the OWGR in April 1986, only seven major championship winners have come from outside the top 100. The first to do it was John Daly in 1991, who was ranked 168th in the world when he won the PGA Championship as an alternate at Crooked Stick. Daly accomplished the feat a second time four years later as he was ranked 109th in the world when he won The Open Championship at St. Andrews in a wild playoff with Costantino Rocca.
Paul Lawrie became the third winner outside the top 100 with his improbable win at The Open in 1999, the famed tournament in which Jean van de Velde had his famous collapse at Carnoustie. Lawrie was No. 159 in the world that week.
Had the answer to our question not done what he did the month before, Shaun Micheel would have been the lowest-ranked player to win a major at the PGA Championship in 2003. Micheel was ranked 169th when he notched the only victory of his career.
Y.E. Yang was ranked 110th when he ran down Tiger Woods on the final day of the 2009 PGA Championship. Former top-10 player Darren Clarke finally won his first and only major at the age of 42 at The Open Championship in 2011 while ranked 111th. One month later, Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship at No. 108.
And then, of course, there’s Phil Mickelson, who won the 2021 PGA Championship at age 50 as the 115th-ranked player in the world.
So that’s eight. If you’ve been watching golf for a while, you probably know the name that’s missing from those listed above. So who exactly is the lowest-ranked golfer to win a major championship?
Ben Curtis was ranked 396th in the OWGR when he won The Open Championship in 2003
And there you have it. World No. 396 Ben Curtis is the lowest-ranked player to date to win a major championship. Curtis had turned pro in 2000 and had never even appeared in a major before teeing it up at Royal St. George’s.
After an unsuccessful stint on the Hooters Tour to begin his career, Ben Curtis went through the always-grueling qualifying school just to get his PGA Tour card for 2003. He made some cuts in his first year on tour but never finished in the top 25 until a T-13 at the Western Open in early July, which finished less than two weeks before The Open began. The finish snuck him into the field at Royal St. George’s and the rest is history.
Curtis was four shots back of the lead after the first round but got it down to three heading into the weekend and cut it by one more heading into Sunday’s final round. He got off to a hot start on the final day, shooting 6-under through the first 11 holes, but then fizzled, shooting 4-over in the last seven to finish with a 69. He then watched as Thomas Bjorn collapsed. Bjorn had a three-shot lead with four holes to play but shot 4-over to lose to Curtis by one.
Ben Curtis, who entered The Open at 300-1 to win, was the only man to finish under par that week. His only major championship win vaulted him from No. 396 in the world to No. 35.
Ben Curtis never won another major championship and now teaches golf
Following his win at The Open Championship, the closest Ben Curtis ever came to winning another major championship was at the 2008 PGA Championship, where he tied for second, finishing two shots behind winner Padraig Harrington.
While he never won another major, Curtis did win three more PGA Tour titles, his last coming in 2012 at the Valero Texas Open. He played his last major at The Open Championship in 2016, retired in 2018, and now runs the Ben Curtis Golf Academy in Ohio.
Stats courtesy of Official World Golf Ranking