- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A golf major brings with it the inevitable search for a pre-tournament favorite.

Recent history, though, suggests it isn’t worth the trouble.

With the world’s top players converging upon Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club for the U.S. Open beginning with Thursday’s first round, there are no shortage of options to consider. Yet with twentysomethings claiming the last three majors and Graeme McDowell collecting last year’s U.S. Open less than two months shy of his 31st birthday, conventional picks might be worth a pause.

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“The younger players are so much more ready for the tour when they come out …” McDowell said. “I think golfers are tougher and better and the standard is so much better across the board and technology has maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, as well. There’s no doubt there’s just so many first-time winners popping up all over the world nowadays and the same for major championships.”

Even without age as a consideration, unpredictability has run rampant at the majors. Forget the event or even whether the venue is a links course in the British Open rota or a classic layout such as Congressional. Unexpected winners repeatedly popped up over the past two years.

Seven men have claimed their first major in the eight contested since the 2009 U.S. Open (Phil Mickelson’s Masters title in 2010 was the outlier). Seven of the past nine major champions were ranked outside the top 25; Mickelson was No. 3 when he collected his third green jacket, while 2010 PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer was No. 13.

One obvious impetus for such opportunity is the struggles of former No. 1 Tiger Woods, whose well-chronicled decline includes no major titles since the 2008 U.S. Open. But Woods, who will not play this week while recovering from injury, is not the only variable in play.

After all, there are other talented contenders in each major field. One facet that could make a difference is the awareness of playing in a spotlight event.

“A lot of guys make it very important and they get more nervous than they would and they don’t play their normal game,” said Charl Schwartzel, who was ranked 29th when he won the Masters in April. “And if you can overcome that in your head, that it’s actually just another golf tournament, one shot means the same as one shot at another golf tournament.”

Still, it’s not a complete explanation for why the average world ranking of the past nine major winners is nearly 46. Neither of the past two U.S. Open champs - McDowell (37th) and Lucas Glover (71st in 2009) - was in the top 30. The same goes for the past two British Open winners (Louis Oosthuizen was 54th when he won last year,, and Stewart Cink was 33rd in 2009).

Then there’s Y.E. Yang, who was ranked No. 110 when he outdueled Woods on the final day of the 2009 PGA.

So who could continue the trend of champions far from the top of the world rankings? Maybe a not-so-random star who simply has yet to win a major, such as Adam Scott (No. 21)?

Perhaps there will be a fifth straight European winner of a major, such as Spaniard Alvaro Quiros (world No. 24 and the first-round Masters leader in April) or young Italian star Matteo Manassero (ranked 30th and coming off three top-10s in his past five events)?

Or possibly a solid if relatively unheralded American, such as Ryan Moore (No. 42) or Brandt Snedeker (No. 46), both of whom have earned one PGA Tour victory and a top-10 U.S. Open finish within the last two years?

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