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Unlikely champions enjoy place in Masters lore

As all of you entered in Masters pools know, it is easy to single out the usual suspects and obvious choices for your list. The unpredictable is more difficult, the didn’t-see-that-coming golfer who comes out of nowhere to win a green jacket. 

They exist, you know. The Champions Dinner guest list includes a number of them. They are the few, the proud and the most unlikely winners in Masters history:

Herman Keiser, 1946: An interesting character, Keiser was born and raised in Springfield, Mo., and because of his somber demeanor, he became known as “The Missouri Mortician. (Let’s see the marketing folks do something with that nickname.) The dire one became part of Masters history in ’46 when he beat Ben Hogan by a stroke to capture a first-place prize of $2,500. It was Keiser’s only top 10 in a major.

Claude Harmon Sr., 1948: If the name sounds familiar, it’s because you have heard of Claude Harmon Jr., also known as “Butch,” one of the game’s foremost instructors. Butch’s pop also was an instructor, and he preferred the stability of teaching to touring. He won only two PGA Tour events and remains the only club pro to win the Masters, the last to win any of the majors.

Charles Coody, 1971: Coody also would win only three times on the PGA Tour, and at age 33, the ’73 Masters would be his last. You can’t take anything away from the big Texan. He birdied two of his last four holes to beat Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two.

Tommy Aaron, 1973: The victory at Augusta was one of only three in Aaron’s career on the PGA Tour. Otherwise, his most notable performance was as a scorekeeper. On Masters Sunday in 1968, Aaron marked Roberto De Vicenzo for a “4” on No. 17 when he actually had a “3.” De Vicenzo didn’t notice the mistake and signed his card for the higher score. That cost him a playoff with eventual winner Bob Goalby. To error is human, but to Aaron was disastrous.

Larry Mize, 1987: The Augusta native birdied the final hole to barge into a three-man playoff with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros, two dominant players of the era. Ballesteros bit the bentgrass on the first playoff hole. On the second, Mize chipped in from 140 feet to topple Norman. It was simply a-Mize-ing. A journeyman throughout his PGA Tour career, Mize won only two more times after that Masters and had a total of four career wins.

Mike Weir, 2003: He had won twice already in ’03, but his odds at Augusta were formidable. That is, until Weir beat Len Mattiace in a playoff to become the first left-hander and first Canadian to wind up in Butler Cabin. Perhaps most surprising about Weir’s victory is that,14 years later, he has only two more wins. 

Trevor Immelman, 2008: Four months earlier, the 28-year-old Immelman underwent surgery to remove a noncancerous tumor on his diaphragm. He had missed cuts in four of eight starts leading up the Masters. Despite a final-round 75 on a blustery Sunday, he outlasted Tiger Woods, becoming the first South African to win a green jacket since Gary Player in 1978. Plagued by injuries, Immelman has won only once in the ensuing years, a 2013 Web.com Tour event.

Charl Schwartzel, 2011: The 2011 Masters is better known as the one that Rory McIlroy lost. McIlroy seemingly had one arm in the green jacket when he inexplicably imploded on Sunday’s back nine. In stepped Schwartzel, who birdied the final four holes for a 66 and the victory. A playoff win at the 2016 Valspar is his only PGA Tour victory since Augusta, although he has won four times in his native South Africa in the ensuing years.

Danny Willett, 2016: Willett was No. 12 in the world rankings, largely because of three recent European Tour victories. He had no PGA Tour credits when he arrived at Augusta last April. At the same time, Willett’s wife, Nicole, was pregnant with the couple’s first child and a due date of April 10, i.e., Masters Sunday. Willett made it clear that he wouldn’t play if his wife were still with child, but as fortune had it, their son was born early. When Jordan Spieth made a quadruple-bogey mess of No. 12, Willett cleaned up with a bogey-free 67. Maybe it was preordained. Jonathan Smart, Willett’s caddie, wore No. 89 on his white jumpsuit, the same number Jack Nicklaus’ son Jackie wore in 1986 when he caddied for dad’s historic win.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD