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The Amateur Golfers Who Stunned Professional Golf

By: | Tue 23 Jan 2024

It is difficult to imagine that there will be a bigger on-course story in 2024 than Nick Dunlap’s astonishing victory at The American Express

It wasn’t just that he won as an amateur, which was surprising enough, but he was 27 under par after 54 holes and shot a third round of 60. That should not have surprised anybody - as a 12-year-old, Dunlap shot a 59.

Amateurs winning professional golf tournaments is unusual but it is certainly not unheard of. Most of the amateurs who won pro events went on to bigger and better things, but nothing is guaranteed.

Here, we look at some of the amateurs who stunned the professionals.

Bobby Jones

The greatest of them all, Jones was a career amateur with no interest in turning professional but that didn’t stop him winning the US Open four times and The Open three times. In 1930 he famously won the US Open, The Open, the US Amateur and The Amateur Championship. And then, aged just 28, he retired from competitive golf. Who knows what he might have achieved had he ever decided to make a living from golf rather than his chosen career as a lawyer?

Cary Middlecoff

Cary Middlecoff shot 8-under par, posting rounds of 70-69-69-72 to secure victory in the 1945 North and South Open as an amateur. He triumphed with a five-stroke lead over Denny Shute. Middlecoff would join the paid ranks and became a three-time major winner in his career, claiming the US Open titles in 1949 and 1956 and winning The Masters in 1955.

Fred Haas

Haas shot 18-under par, posting rounds of 69-69-64-68, securing a five-shot victory over amateur Bob Cochran and George Low Jr. to clinch the Memphis Invitational in August 1945. Haas graduated from Louisiana State University in 1937, where he won the NCAA Championship in his senior year. He turned pro in 1946 and subsequently represented the USA at the 1953 Ryder Cup.

Frank Stranahan

Stranahan shot 3-under 277 to win the 1945 Durham Open at Durham Valley, North Carolina. The previous two winners were Byron Nelson and Craig Woods. As a junior, Stranahan received instructions from Byron Nelson at Inverness, where Nelson worked as the club’s professional. After his triumph in 1945, Stranahan chose to remain an amateur and secured his second professional title on the PGA Tour by winning the 1948 Miami Open. Stranahan posted a total score of 270, defeating Chick Harbert by four shots.

Gene Littler

Littler, who was the 1953 US Amateur champion, shot 14-under par with rounds of 67-66-69-72, securing a victory in the 1954 San Diego Open by a four-shot margin over Dutch Harrison. Subsequently, Littler went on to win the US Open Championship in 1961 and became a distinguished member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Doug Sanders

Sanders carded rounds of 69-67-69-68 to match Dow Finsterwald at 15-under par and beat him in a playoff to become the only amateur to win the Canadian Open. Sanders later went on to win 20 times on the PGA Tour, famously missing a tiny putt to win The Open at St Andrews in 1970 before losing an 18-hole playoff to Jack Nicklaus. He also won on the Champions Tour. 

Catherine Lacoste

Daughter of legendary tennis star Rene, Catherine Lacoste remains the last amateur to win a major golf championship. Her sporting heritage doesn't stop with her father, as Lacoste's mother Simone de la Chaume won the British Women's Amateur in 1927. It was four decades later when the 22-year-old Parisian stunningly claimed the US Women's Open by two strokes. Resisting any temptation to turn professional, Lacoste returned to defend her title the following year before later claiming further amateur successes until stepping away from tournament golf at an early age.

Phil Mickelson

Before the American Express, the last amateur to claim a professional title on the PGA Tour was Mickelson at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. Mickelson recorded rounds of 65-71-65-71, accumulating a total score of 16-under 272 to edge out Tom Purtzer and Bob Tway by a single shot in Tucson. Mickelson, the then 20-year-old junior at Arizona State birdied the 72nd hole to win by one shot.

Pablo Martin

In April 2007, Martín became the first amateur ever to win a European Tour event when he captured the Estoril Open de Portugal. He beat French golfer Raphael Jacquelin by a shot. Martin was unable to claim the prize money but the victory granted him exemption on the European Tour until the end of 2009. He turned professional in June 2007, and completed the season playing on both the European Tour and the PGA Tour, relying on sponsors' invitations for PGA Tour events. Martin also won the Alfred Dunhill Championship in 2009 and 2010.

Danny Lee

In February 2009, Lee won the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Western Australia, a professional tournament co-sanctioned by the European, Asian and Australasian Tours. At the age of 18, he was the youngest ever winner on the European Tour at the time surpassing Dale Hayes, and only the second amateur winner after Pablo Martin.

Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry

(Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography)

If you are an amateur and you are going to win a professional golf tournament then why not win your national open? That is exactly what Lowry did as a 22-year-old when he won a playoff at Baltray at the third extra hole. Robert Rock was the man he beat and it was Rock who walked away with first-place prize money. But Lowry didn’t too badly when he joined the paid ranks, did he?

Lydia Ko

All of the players above achieved incredible things, but none were surely more astonishing than what Lydia Ko accomplished while she was a teenage amateur. Back in 2012, the New Zealander won the Canadian Open (formerly an LPGA Tour major) aged just 15 years and four months. The winning cheque of $300,000 went to runner-up Inbee Park. 12 months later, Ko was back and successfully defended her title. She ultimately turned professional later that season.

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