Top 5 Comebacks in Golf History

by Pete Pappas

We were completely mesmerized by Tiger Woods on Saturday at The Open this year when he held a share of the lead at a major championship for the first time in 10 years. At the PGA Championship three weeks later Woods was in contention again, and we had reason to believe he might actually pull off the victory.

Tiger Woods 2018 PGA Championship
Tiger Woods 2018 PGA Championship

Over the last decade, Tiger has suffered through personal embarrassment and scandal, undergone dramatic swing changes and four back surgeries, and fought his way through career-threatening injury and sometimes hideous play. Tiger is on record saying his 2018 season ranks among his best ever, but does it stack up as one of the greatest comebacks ever? From life-and-death illnesses to paralyzing slumps, here are the top 5 comebacks in golf history.

5. Ken Venturi

Ken Venturi grew up with a pronounced stutter and chose to play golf because of its solitary nature – he didn’t have to speak. And in a 36-month span between 1958 and 1960 Venturi let his actions speak for him. The former Byron Nelson pupil won 10 times during this time, and his future looked limitless. In 1961 however, Venturi was injured in a car accident and personal struggles with alcohol deteriorated his game. Venturi went winless until one of golf’s most historic moments – when he overcame severe dehydration in the searing heat and humidity at Congressional to claim the 1964 U.S. Open. It was literally a near death victory and the biggest of his career.

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4. J.B. Holmes

In 2011 J.B. Holmes withdrew from a tournament suffering what he believed to be vertigo. It was much more serious. Holmes was diagnosed with structural defects in his cerebellum known as Chiari malformations. Two brain surgeries were required, and doctors removed a quarter-size piece of his skull and placed a titanium plate in his head. Merely returning to play on Tour would have been a remarkable achievement, but Holmes’ journey back from brain surgery was even more impressive when he won the 2014 Wells Fargo Championship for the third victory of his career. As a reminder of his improbable comeback, Holmes keeps the chunk of skull on a windowsill at home.

JB Holmes 2014 Wells Fargo Championship
JB Holmes 2014 Wells Fargo Championship

3. Tiger Woods

It started off as one of the greatest stories in U.S. Open history. Tiger Woods writhing through the pain of torn knee cartilage, a shredded ACL, and two stress fractures in his left tibia that grew worse with every step. Woods rallied late on Sunday at Torrey Pines to force a playoff with upstart Rocco Mediate, and then again in sudden-death to win the 2008 U.S. Open.

In the nine years that followed, however, Woods fall from grace was stunning. Tiger was rocked by scandal that cost him endorsements, his popularity, and even his marriage. Physical injuries plagued him to such a degree that he couldn’t even stand up or sit down without excruciating pain. The greatest golfer of our generation was nearly an afterthought. This season, however, Tiger is back with a vengeance. Woods is healthy again, he’s happy again, he’s playing like the Tiger of old – and this already unimaginable comeback is only getting started.

2. Babe Zaharias

Babe Zaharias was the first woman to play on the men’s Tour and in the early days of the LPGA, she was the female equivalent of Tiger Woods – a larger than life figure who transcended the sport. In 1950 Babe won eight times, in 1951 she won nine times. All told the greatest female golfer of all time won 48 professional events.

Babe Zaharias
Babe Zaharias at the U.S. Women’s Open

In 1953 however, Zaharias was diagnosed with cancer and underwent invasive surgery to remove her entire colon. Babe fought valiantly against cancer and just one year later in 1954 won five more times on Tour, including her historic win at the U.S. Women’s Open. The morning of Zaharias’ passing in 1956, President Eisenhower paid tribute to the Hall of Famer and Olympian saying she “inspired us all.”

1. Ben Hogan

On a damp and chilly Texas morning in 1949, Ben Hogan and his wife were driving in their Cadillac when a Greyhound bus plowed into them head on. Hogan was 36-years old and suffered a broken clavicle, a complex pelvic fracture, a fractured left ankle, broken ribs, and numerous facial injuries. Doctors told Hogan he would probably never walk again – let along play golf.

Ben Hogans Car Crash
Ben Hogan’s Car after the crash

Instead, Hogan went on to the most dominant phase of his career. Fifty-nine days after the accident Hogan was out of the hospital, and less than one year later he won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion. “The Hawk” would go on to win six of his nine major titles post-accident in what is arguably the greatest comeback in all of sports.

Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan tees off at the 1950 U.S. Open
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