A popular golf wager not that long ago was tempting: Someone takes Tiger Woods in a major championship, someone else gets the rest of the field.
Pitting one against 155 hardly seems fair, but there was a stretch a decade ago that saw Woods win seven times in an 11-major span. Time was, predicting how any major championships would play out wasn’t all that difficult, or much of a stretch.
Times have changed. Anybody who boasts of having the ability to accurately forecast major championships is either a meteorologist or a psychic. Or simply a liar, because golf these days is as unpredictable as a roll of the dice at a Vegas craps table.
Woods might win this week’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which starts on Thursday. If he does, it would simply extend the streak of major championships without a repeat winner to 16, the second-longest stretch since the Masters made its debut in 1934. It would end a streak, too, since the last nine majors have been won by first-timers. Woods already has 14.
Parity, at least over the last four years, has held serve at the Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. Now, instead of splitting the field into two pieces and choosing either Woods or everyone else, stuff 156 slips of paper into a hat and blindly draw one. It seems you’d have just as good a chance of picking the winner that way.
“You can’t guess who’s going to win every time,” said Bubba Watson, who made it 14 different winners in 14 straight majors when he won the Masters in April. “Tiger has made the game grow in every country, every part of the world. There’s more and more talent out there. Every week everybody has a chance to win the golf tournament, no matter how old or young you are. I think Tiger has just helped the game develop into that.”
Studying the list of the last 15 major champions for a pattern of clues doesn’t yield many. Recent majors have been won by players as old as 42 (Darren Clarke at last year’s British) and as young as 22 (Rory McIlroy at last year’s US Open). They’ve been won by those ranked as high as third in the world (Phil Mickelson, 2010 Masters; and Padraig Harrington, 2008 PGA) and as low as 110 (Clarke). Nine of the 15 winners are international players, but the last three — Keegan Bradley, Watson, and Webb Simpson — are American.
The lesson, at least lately: Almost anybody can win.
“When I came out on tour in ’96, you kind of felt like you had to learn how to win and maybe lose a few tournaments before you were allowed a win,” said Harrington, who won all three of his majors in a 13-month span in 2007-08. “I think golfers are evolving. It’s changing now. Keegan Bradley last year won in his first major.”
Woods is partly to blame for the parity, you could say. His loss to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA, followed by injuries, unveiled infidelity, and swing changes, have diminished Woods’s longstanding role as dominant intimidator. It’s also opened the door for everyone else.
“For so long, he really dictated if guys had chances to win other championships. When Tiger disappeared for a couple of years, it all of a sudden gave some of these guys an opportunity to have some success,” said Andy North, a two-time US Open winner. “If you play a lot of practice rounds with three guys, and they’re your buddies, and one of them goes out and wins a major, you start thinking, ‘Heck, I can beat him. We play all the time, why shouldn’t I be able to win?’ ”
Dozens of players are having those thoughts. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood — ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the world — would love to push the streak to 10 straight first-time major winners and give their fans in England a reason to roar. Four others in the top 10 (Jason Dufner, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan) also have never won majors, and feel they have something to prove.
So, too, does Woods. Already a three-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, he’s gone more than four years now without a major championship. Self-inflicted issues have made his quest more challenging. But it’s never easy to win one of these.
“I think the fields are deeper, there’s no doubt,” Woods said. “You need to have a hot week at the right time. That’s what it comes down to.
“There are more guys now [that] have a chance to win major championships than ever before, and I think that will just continue to be that way. What do we have, 15 in a row? It just goes to show you the depth of the field.”
Whoever wins at Royal Lytham, they’ll need to deal with weather that might not be ideal and navigate a course that features 205 bunkers. We could see the 16th straight different major winner, such as Woods, Donald, Westwood, or someone else. Maybe James Driscoll from Boston, playing in his second British Open.
Watson isn’t buying it. He said the streak ends now.
“We’re going to change that,” Watson said. “Keegan Bradley, he’s going to win.”
If we take the last 15 major champions, their average age at the time of victory was slightly older than 31, and the average world ranking was about 45. Sounds like Jonathan Byrd, a 34-year-old American who’s ranked 47th and has five PGA Tour wins, but no major. Byrd, in fact, has just one top-10 finish in 18 major championship appearances.
The last 15 major championships have brought a number of surprises. Chances are good, then, that the 141st British Open delivers another.