Golf rarely has been this mysterious when it comes to the majors.
Tiger Woods used to be counted on to win at least one major a year and contend in the others. And while he is back to being the betting favorite, the British Open will be the 17th major since Woods won his last one. Rory McIlroy, the heir apparent, has taken such a peculiar turn in the last two months that it was cause for minor celebration, if not major relief, when he simply made the cut in the Irish Open.
Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the two players who have been atop the world ranking the most over the last two years, have never won a major.
So when the British Open begins July 19 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on the Lancashire coast of England, there really is only one logical question.
These days, the answer is pure guesswork.
Fifteen players from five continents have won the last 15 majors, a stretch of parity not seen since golf was searching for a dominant player in the mid-1980s. Only three of those winners were among the top 10 in the world ranking. Three of them were not in the top 50, and three others were not even in the top 100.
“It just shows how deep the level of competition is right now,” Adam Scott said.
A streak of 18 different winners, two generations ago, started with Tom Watson capturing his fifth British Open in 1983 and ended with Larry Nelson winning his third major at the 1987 PGA Championship. Major champions during the mid-1980s included the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Jack Nicklaus.
What sets apart this recent stretch is that Webb Simpson at the U.S. Open last month became the ninth straight player to win his first major.
“Pretty amazing,” Hunter Mahan said. “I remember first coming out on tour, and it was almost the same five guys every Sunday at every major. It really was. This is a whole new staff of players. It’s the evolution of the game.”
Woods used to be dominant in the majors, even during the short-lived era of the “Big Four” that included Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. It reached such a point of predictability that Colin Montgomerie once suggested there was only one major for everyone else after Woods & Co. collected theirs.
“Tiger was winning all those things, and he was keeping Phil from winning more,” Mahan said. “Now, it’s like there are four majors _ four majors that are wide open. Augusta is the only place where you can count on four or five guys being there. That place is predictable. Everywhere else, it’s not predictable.”
The British Open returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes for the first time since 2001, when David Duval pulled away from a four-way share of the lead on Sunday to capture his only major. It is the only links course in the rotation without a view of the sea. Lytham is a relatively small piece of property enclosed by houses and a railway, and littered with 206 bunkers that give the course its character.
The sixth hole has been converted to a par 4, so Lytham will be a par 70 for the first time.
The defending champion is Darren Clarke, another surprise in this list of different major champions, though for other reasons. He was 42, beyond what was considered to be the prime of his career, when he finally got his name on the claret jug on his 20th attempt.
Woods did not play last year at Royal St. George’s, taking most of the summer off to let the injuries to his left leg fully heal. Woods, a three-time Open champion, has not finished in the top 10 at golf’s oldest championship since he won at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Then again, he has missed two of the last five because of injury.
A winner this year at Bay Hill, Muirfield Village and Congressional, the only thing that keeps Woods from restoring some of his mystique is a major. And as the last four years have shown, those are getting more difficult to win.
“The more different guys that win them, the more guys who think they can win them,” Geoff Ogilvy said.
Simpson said as much when he won at The Olympic Club last month. He watched his Presidents Cup teammate, Bubba Watson, win the Masters. In the previous major, Keegan Bradley rallied and beat Jason Dufner in a playoff at the PGA Championship.
It was Bradley’s first appearance in a major championship.
“If I see Keegan Bradley win a major … I respect his game a ton, but I feel like, `Keegan Bradley won one, I want go to win one,’” Simpson said. “All these guys that won before me, I thought, `I played with these guys all my life.’ They’re great players, but I want to do what they’re doing. Everybody is so competitive in this world that we just kind of feed off each other.”
Attribute some of that to the slide of Woods. During one stretch, Woods won 13 out of 35 majors, and he was winning regular PGA Tour events at an even higher rate. That didn’t leave as many trophies _ and certainly not much attention_ for everyone else. The landscape is changing, though. Woods is a 36-year-old with four knee surgeries behind him. Mickelson is 42 and has not broken par since May. Singh is 49 and hasn’t won in four years, while Els is 42 and is struggling mightily with his putting.
The next generation is not on the way. It’s already here. And most of these players don’t have mental scars from watching the guy in a red shirt pose with all those major titles.
“The biggest thing is the mental aspect,” said Ogilvy, who won his lone major in 2006 at the U.S. Open. “Jack always said he thought majors were the easiest to win because most guys in the field didn’t think they could win them. But the more different guys that win, the more others will say, `If he can win one, I can win one.’ When it was just Tiger, Vijay, Ernie and Phil winning them, players might think majors are only for those guys.
“So the mental aspect gets easier,” he said. “You see these guys winning majors, and you compete with them every week. Saying that, they’re still very, very hard to win.”
Nicklaus and Trevino were the players to beat in the early 1970s, while Nicklaus and Watson took over in the latter part of the decade and into the early 1980s. Toward the end of the `80s, Nick Faldo began racking up majors, along with Ballesteros and Curtis Strange, and there was the constant presence of Greg Norman.
If an era of the Big Four is ending, there are plenty of young players and even those in the middle _ Donald, Scott, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia _ who see an opportunity like never before.
“I still think majors are every good player’s best opportunity,” Scott said. “It eliminates you if you’re playing bad, and things can happen at the end, like we see all the time. We saw it against Olympic. A couple of guys stumbled coming in, Webb hangs on and his nerves hold up on the last few holes. The competition is just deeper now. Fifteen in a row of different winners? Nine first-time winners? Right?
“There are more guys playing good enough to win on a regular basis. So it’s getting tougher.”
The pressure figures to be mounting on those whose chances are running out. Steve Stricker is 45. Westwood is 39 and considered the best to have never won a major. His seven top 3s in the majors are the most of any player who has never won one dating to 1934. Westwood and Donald are the only players to be No. 1 without ever having won a major.
Will home soil help? Maybe. Then again, only one English-born player since 1938 has won the British Open in England.
That was Tony Jacklin in 1969, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
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