23 Years Ago Today: Happy Gilmore Defeated Shooter McGavin To Win The Tour Championship

England at Headingley in 1981, Dennis Taylor in the Crucible in 1985, Nick Faldo in Augusta National in 1996, Liverpool in Istanbul in 2005, The Miracle in Medinah in 2012 and the New England Patriots at Super Bowl LI in 2017.

These are all great sporting comebacks but they all pale in comparison to Happy Gilmore in 1996!

For many the icon of his generation, when it comes to golf, would be Tiger Woods. And who would really blame them. Woods spent 246 weeks as golf’s number one ranked player in the world, won his first major aged 21 by a record breaking 20 strokes and went on to win 14 majors.

However whilst Woods dominated from the mid 90s onwards he still had to take the mantle off one man, it wasn’t Faldo, but instead the man who helped write the story of the greatest of all sporting comebacks, Happy Gilmore.

To really appreciate Gilmore’s incredible story as an innovator of his sport and a true champion then we have to go all the way back and remember that the young American wasn’t even a golfer by trade but an ice hockey player.

But Gilmore’s wayward skating skills meant that he would never make it on the ice. However fate would see him discover a knack for being able to drive a ball over 400 yards.

Obviously an ability to drive that far is good but it’s not the only thing that golf is built on. If a lack of a short game didn’t stop you winning a major then Lee Westwood would have a plethora of golf’s biggest prizes to his name.

Gilmore then was lucky enough to employ the genius of legendary golfer Chubbs Peterson to help coach him. Peterson had been away from the limelight for many years after the unfortunate accident that saw him lose a hand to an alligator.

The relationship between golfer and coach was never perfect but Gilmore gave Peterson a new lease of life before the incident that would take his life, sadly during an important part of the season, and in return he imparted all his wisdom to the young up and comer.

Happy Gilmore enjoys a round of golf with actor friend Kevin James

Happy Gilmore enjoys a round of golf with actor friend Kevin James

One thing that is often overlooked in Happy’s story is his working class upbringing in a sport often dominated by the middle classes. Fortunately from Gilmore the PGA’s PR team were able to notice his appeal as they pushed him further into the limelight as casual viewers really got behind him.

His temperament though saw him in front of a disciplinary board on more than one occasion and he even had the odd run in with tour Commissioner Doug Thompson, especially when he was fined $25,000 for a scrap with celebrity Rob Barker during a pro-am tournament.

Despite the setback of being suspended for a month Gilmore still somehow made the tour championship. It was in the build up to the final tournament of the season that Paterson, spooked by the alligator after his protege’s own run in with the animal, would literally fall to his death.

Believing he could turn his hand at any sport with great success Gilmore briefly joined the ATP Tour

Believing he could turn his hand at any sport with great success Gilmore briefly joined the ATP Tour

It’s almost remiss of me to get this far in retelling the incredible rags to riches story of Gilmore without mentioning his sporting rival Shooter McGavin.

All the greats in sport tend to have an adversary, for Roger Federer it was Rafael Nadal, Sir Alex Ferguson had Arsene Wenger, Lionel Messi has Cristiano Ronaldo and Gilmore had McGavin and the pair hated each other.

Shooter, of a more traditional golfing uprising, was always wary of Gilmore’s presence on the tour and his quick rise to fame. Many have, in the years that have since past, accused McGavin of elitism and trying to take the game back into the middle ages. Well they might have if women had been allowed to become member of Augusta before 2012!

The pair would clash several times during the season with Shooter getting more and more frustrated with the threat that his new opponent was causing to his chances of taking home the Tour Championships again.

Gilmore with fellow sports star Shaquille O'Neal

Gilmore with fellow sports star Shaquille O’Neal

Their rivalry became even more heated and personal when off the course a business deal involving the pair turned sour. Gilmore was due to buy a property but McGavin outbid him at the last moment just to spite his adversary.

Whilst the sneaky McGavin thought it would help him win the mind games leading up to the Tour Championships the incident, along with his coach’s death, merely inspired the former ice hockey player.

Spurring each other on throughout the tournament no one else is close to McGavin and Gilmore. The pair finished the first two days unable to be separated.

Paired together on day three Happy lead at the end of the third round but his slim lead gave him no margin for error.

What happened next would go down in history as one of the most unlikely and heinous acts ever seen in the history of golf, no, sport.

Gilmore briefly attempted to become a movie star and starred in some dreadful 'comedies'

Gilmore briefly attempted to become a movie star and starred in some dreadful ‘comedies’

With Gilmore in the lead approaching the back nine, a crazed fan breached security, speeding down the fairway in a Volkswagen and crashing into the rookie, seemingly handing McGavin the advantage.

Shockingly the tournament went ahead with Gilmore now shaken and lucky to be alive.

Unsurprisingly McGavin would get into a four shot down the back nine and look set to take the title in the most unusual of circumstances, not that he was looking too bothered.

However in what would become sports most amazing comeback of all time Gilmore would start his comeback with a birdie at the 16th. Going into the 18th Happy was within one shot of his rival.

McGavin on the senior's tour. He would never recover from blowing his four shot lead on the back nine.

McGavin on the senior’s tour. He would never recover from blowing his four shot lead on the back nine.

In a weird quirk the crazed maniac who ran down Gilmore had knocked down a television tower onto the 18th green. And yet somehow the PGA allowed the tournament to continue.

Seriously if you’re ever going to complain about sports administration again first watch Senna and see how little the F1’s governing body seemed to care about safety back then and then remember that the 1996 Tour Championships was allowed to go on despite a fan running over one the competitors with a car and the same participant had to play on with a tv tower crashed onto the 18th green.

Incredibly McGavin had his own issues on the final hole playing it into the crowd so when Gilmore came to taking his shot through the tv tower he had two shots for par and take it to a play-off.

They say fate favours the brave and whoever said that was of course proved right by Gilmore. As everyone knows he decided to take the shot for birdie and unbelievably sunk it to make him the Tour Championship winner. He would of course dedicate the win to his friend and mentor Chubbs.

Sadly Gilmore would disappear from sight soon after, preferring the quiet life to golf. His match up with Woods might have been epic and taken the sport to the next level, the way Federer and Nadal did for tennis.

Woods of course is probably glad that Happy decided to retire on a high, he might not have won as many majors.

Twenty two years since the greatest sporting comeback of all time. The weirdest and oddest weekend that golf has ever seen and it will forever live long in the memory.

Happy Anniversary, Happy Gilmore!

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