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The Greatest Comeback Stories in Golf

Tiger Woods 2019

The Greatest Comeback Stories in Golf

This week, the PGA Tour will embark on the John Deere Classic at the TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois. Each summer, pro golfers run the gauntlet of tournaments, contests, and tour titles. As evidenced by the small pool of consistent pro golfers, winning even the most meager golf tournament is no easy feat. It requires untold patience, dexterity, and in many ways, faith. While some golfers maintain their ability throughout long, consistent careers, others fall by the wayside before becoming the greatest comeback stories in golf.

With sports, there’s no telling what kind of variables are at play to drop a world-class contender to the bottom of the rankings. In these terms, pro golf is no exception. While some golfers hit unheard-of slumps before finding their bearings and returning in triumph, others suffer serious injuries outside the sport before recovering and winning titles. A select few golfers were born with debilitating conditions they managed to overcome before finding glory in the rankings. In this article, we will explore 13 of the greatest comeback stories in golf history. While some of them may surprise you, all of them will fill you with inspiration. (For comebacks of an artist’s bent, discover the biggest comebacks in music history.)

To compile a list of the 13 greatest comeback stories in golf history, 24/7 Tempo consulted a range of sports and lifestyle publications including Golf Digest, Golfshake, and NBC Sports. From there, we selected comeback stories that showed the greatest upset or return to form after injuries, disease, or other extenuating circumstances. After that, we confirmed aspects of each comeback story using sites like PGA Tour, ESPN, and Britannica.

Ken Venturi

Piccadilly World Match Play Championship
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Even before embarking on a golf career, Venturi faced challenges. First, he overcame a childhood stutter. Then, as the pupil of Byron Nelson, Venturi grew into the best amateur golfer in northern California. Once he turned pro, he became a standout golfer, winning 10 tour titles in less than two years, between 1958 and 1960. The next year, however, Venturi got into a car accident.

Though he came away with only minor injuries, his penchant for alcohol only compounded the accident’s effects. As a result, his game suffered for several years. He went without a win until the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional. There, Venturi suffered through scorching heat and thick humidity, nearly collapsing from heatstroke. He persevered, however, winning the greatest golf title of his career and became one of the greatest comeback stories in golf.

J.B. Holmes

J.B. Holmes
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Since the start of his career, Holmes developed a reputation for hitting the ball far. Taking notes from John Daly’s “Grip it and Rip it” philosophy, Holmes helped usher in a new era of golf with players hitting the ball farther than 300 yards. This technique also helped him place high in the rankings at the 2008 Ryder Cup. A few years later, however, Holmes withdrew himself from the 2011 PGA Championship.

Though he shot an 80 in the first round, his increasingly severe vertigo symptoms became too much to bear. This led to a diagnosis of Chiari malformations, an ailment causing structural defects in the cerebellum of his brain. Though he underwent brain surgery that same year, doctors soon discovered Holmes was allergic to the adhesive used to glue the titanium at the base of his skull. Though he recovered eventually, Holmes underwent ankle surgery from a rollerblading accident in 2013. Already sidelined, Holmes underwent an elbow surgery for a previous injury. The third time was the charm, it appears, as Holmes returned to form in 2014. Since then, he’s finished in the top 20 for five of six PGA starts.

Henrik Stenson

LIV Golf Invitational - Hong Kong - Day Three
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While some of the greatest comeback stories in golf center around recoveries from physical ailments, Swedish pro golfer Stenson suffered a more mental injury. Just before winning the 2009 Players Championship and being ranked No. 4 in the world, some troubling news broke. He learned that one of his sponsors, the Stanford Financial Group, had swindled Stenson out of $7 million in a complicated Ponzi scheme. This violation no doubt affected his playing, as he dropped in the world rankings to No. 230 by 2012.

Stenson, however, had too strong of a golf ability to let the loss beleaguer him forever. By 2013, he shot back into contender status, finishing in the top three for the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and PGA Championship. This led to Stenson winning the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai titles. By the end of 2013, Stenson had made a remarkable recovery, shooting back up to No. 3 in the world, the highest ranking of any Swedish golfer in history.

Ben Hogan

Ben Hogan
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While some golfers suffer a string of minor injuries that cripple their playing ability, legendary pro golfer Hogan endured actual crippling while at the height of his career. Shortly after the 1949 Phoenix Open, Hogan barely survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus. The accident left him with a broken pelvis, a broken clavicle, broken ribs, a fractured ankle, and facial injuries. Furthermore, he nearly died from blood clots while in the hospital.

While Hogan suffered from circulation issues for the rest of his life and could never play a full golf schedule again, it didn’t stop him from embarking on one of the greatest comeback stories in golf. Only 16 months after his near-death experience, Hogan returned to the links to win the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion. From there, he went on to win five more major championships, including three in 1953.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods 2019
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While legendary golfer Woods suffered from various injuries throughout his career, it was a more personal scandal that seemed to affect him the most. After getting in a car accident in his driveway in 2009, he faced a much-publicized sex scandal. After being featured prominently in the news and tabloids for months, Woods star seemed to dull. The ensuing fallout from the scandal cost him his marriage and the majority of his sponsorships. By the time the ordeal died down, his popularity had tanked considerably. He returned to golf only five months later and his game suffered for the first time in his career.

Though he earned a T-4 at the Masters, he failed to win any titles in 2010 and 2011, causing him to fall outside the top 50 Official World Golf rankings for the first time in his professional career. A fire still burned in Woods, however. By 2012, he returned to form, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational. After two more wins the same year and five more in 2013, Woods returned to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings as well as earning a record 11th PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.

Lloyd Mangrum

Mangrum Drives
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After joining the PGA Tour in 1937, pro golfer Mangrum won a whopping 36 events on the tour. He was slated to win more, except World War II kicked off and he was drafted. Though the U.S. Army offered him a job at the Fort Meade golf course so he could avoid combat, Mangrum denied the offer. Instead, he went head-first into battle, fighting in both the invasion of Normandy Beach (D-Day) and The Battle of The Bulge. This earned him two Purple Heart Medals. Later in the war, Mangrum earned two Silver and two Bronze Stars while serving in General Patton’s Third Army.

Though he came home with bullet wounds in his knee and shoulder, Mangrum showed little wear or tear. A mere one year after the war ended, Mangrum earned his only major title at the 1946 U.S. Open at the Canterbury Golf Club. There, he edged out rivals Byron Nelson and Vic Ghezzi in a 36-hole playoff. Overall, Mangrum would place in the top 10 at the Masters Tournament for 10 consecutive years and become one of the greatest comeback stories in golf history.

Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller
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Throughout the 1970s, pro golfer Miller earned a reputation as one the greatest ball-strikers ever. Case in point, Miller won an incredible 18 titles between 1971 and 1976, including the 1973 U.S. Open and the 1976 Open Championship. A few years later, however, Miller began suffering from the “putting yips.” A mysterious but pervasive ailment in professional sports, the yips refer to a sudden and unexplainable loss of ability for fine motor skills like putting.

After 1977, Miller played less than 20 events on the PGA Tour before quitting pro golf entirely in the late 1980s. From there, he embarked on a successful broadcasting career with NBC. On a whim, however, Miller entered the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am tournament. Though out of practice and pushing 50 years old, he won the contest with a one-stroke lead over golf legend Tom Watson. It remains one of the greatest, if unlikely, comeback stories in golf history.

Babe Zaharias

Mildred Didrikson
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Competing during the early days of the LGPA, pro golfer Zaharias was like a pre-war Tiger Woods. She stood as a larger-than-life figure that often transcended the sport. Long before she took up the links, Zaharias performed as a world-class athlete. Besides her basketball acumen, she set multiple world records at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, winning two gold medals and two silver medals in track and field contests. By 1935, however, Zaharias set her sights on the world of golf.

In short order, she won numerous amateur titles before turning pro in 1947. Three years later, Zaharias won the Grand Slam of women’s golf; the U.S. Women’s Open, the Titleholders Championship, and the Women’s Western Open. Remarkably, she returned the next year to win a second-consecutive money title. In 1953, however. Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer. Though she endured invasive surgery and came away without a colon, it didn’t impede her golf game. Returning to pro golf in 1954, Zaharias won five times that same year on the women’s tour, including the U.S. Women’s Open. Tragically, her colon cancer returned a year later, killing her in the process. (For inspirational sports stories portrayed in media, explore great sports movies based on true stories.)

Steve Jones

US Open Jones
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Though pro golfer Jones failed to make much of a mark in his first few years of play, he went on to win an incredible four titles during the PGA Tour between 1987-88. In the fall of 1991, however, Jones got into a dirtbike accident. This left him with severe ligament and joint damage in his left ring finger. As such, Jones’ golf career took a backseat as he slowly recovered for the next three years.

The time away had its effects, too. By 1996, Jones needed a sectional qualifier to enter into his first U.S. Open in half a decade. He persevered, however, edging out rivals Tom Lehman and Davis Love III to win his first and only U.S. Open championship. This also made him the first sectional qualifier to win the tournament since 1976. From there, Jones would go on to win three more PGA Tour events before suffering a tennis elbow injury. Though it steadily brought him down in the rankings, his initial return from injury remains one of the greatest comeback stories in golf.

Gene Littler

Gene Littler
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From an early age, Littler showed a prodigious talent for golf. Besides winning multiple amateur competitions in 1953, a year later he became one of the few amateur golfers to win a PGA Tour event. After that, Littler gained a reputation for his grounded temperament and solid, rhythmical swing. For this, he earned the nickname “Gene the Machine.” While he won four times on the PGA Tour in 1955, he soon fell into a slump that plagued him for the next two decades.

To make matters worse, in 1972, doctors discovered melanoma cancer in a lymph node under his left arm. If he ended his career then, it would have still earned him a place in the Golf Hall of Fame. Instead, Littler recovered and came back swinging in one of the greatest comeback stories in golf history. He made another Ryder Cup Team and won five more times on the PGA Tour, including the 1961 U.S. Open with a 68 over runner-up Doug Sanders.

Steve Stricker

Steve Stricker
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Pro golfer Stricker started his career on the Canadian Professional Golf Tour. After winning two tournaments in the league, he earned his place on the PGA Tour in 1994. It took two more years for Stricker to make his mark, however. In 1996, he won both the Kemper Open and the Motorola Western Open, along with seven top-10 finishes, causing him to finish fourth on the 1996 PGA Tour Money List. Stricker’s career seemed to only blossom from there, as he earned three top fives in five major tournaments between 1998 and 1999.

Something happened to Stricker in the intervening years, however. In what many would call a world-class slump, Stricker won just one title between 1996 and 2006. This caused him to fall outside of the top 300 ranked golf players in the world. What’s worse, his abysmal record caused him to lose his PGA tour card. Though many questioned his ability to ever play at a top level again, including himself, Sticker proved the naysayers wrong. A sea change occurred somewhere between 2006 and 2007. Though he had to rely on sponsor exemptions, he came back swinging, pulling off seven top-10 finishes.

After receiving the PGA Comeback Player of the Year, Stricker won his fourth PGA Tour title at The Barclays in 2007, ending an 11-year victory drought. After another year of solid play, he earned another PGA Comeback Player of the Year award and ratcheted up to the No. 4 player in the world. It’s one of the greatest comeback stories in golf because Stricker went from practically stripped of his pro status to one of the best players in the world.

Erik Compton

Genuity Championship X
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Whereas many golfers on this list suffered from debilitating injuries during the peak of their career, pro golfer Compton was plagued by a life-threatening injury since childhood. At 9 years old, he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart muscle to inflame and pump blood at meager levels. A few years later, Compton underwent his first heart transplant. It didn’t stop him from having a professional golf career, however.

Throughout the early aughts, Compton scored various victories and formidable rankings in the PGA Tour and NGA Golf Tour. What’s more, he dominated the Canadian Golf Tour in 2004, winning two contests as well as the Order of Merit Title. After playing 19 times on the Nationwide Tour in 2008, however, his heart ran into trouble once again. He underwent a second heart transplant that same year. Less than two years later, Compton returned to form after he placed on the Web.com Tour through Q-School. A year later, he won a title on the Q-School Tour. This helped him finally earn his PGA Touring card. He has one of the greatest comeback stories in golf because it shows that even a second heart transplant can’t stop an unbridled passion for golf.

Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger
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Though he started playing golf at the tender age of 5, Azinger spent the majority of his childhood pumping gas and painting boats in his father’s marina in Sarasota, Florida. While later attending community college, Azinger found more time to practice his swing. This quickly led to a job at Bay Hill Golf Academy in Orlando, which provided the opportunity for a golf scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee. Though he turned pro in 1981, for years he collected relatively meager earnings. In an attempt to cover the costs of travel, Azinger and his wife bought a used motor home, which they drove from tournament to tournament.

In 1987, Azinger had a breakout year. He won three contests on the PGA Tour including a second-place finish in the Open Championship. Between 1987 and 1993, Azinger grew into peak form. In those seven seasons, he won 11 tournaments on the PGA Tour, including his remarkable sudden-death win over Greg Norman during the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness. Tragedy struck that winter when Azinger was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in his right shoulder. He underwent a grueling six months of chemotherapy treatment, before five additional weeks of radiation therapy in California.

At the time of his diagnosis, Azinger was considered one of the best golfers in the world. In tandem, he received the GWAA Ben Hogan Award in 1995, a prize given to golfers who continue to be active despite serious injury or illness. Hoping to not fall into retirement so quickly, Azinger made a remarkable return at the start of the millennium. He won the Sony Open in Hawaii in 2000, his first tournament win in seven seasons. From there, Azinger became the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2008. Thanks to his innovative strategy, he led the U.S. team to their first win over their European counterparts in eight years. (For high-watermark victories, discover the 20 biggest wins in golf history.)

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