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PGA has a knack for producing first-time major winners

First-time major winners are common

When Keegan Bradley won the PGA in 2011, it was his first major title (in fact, it was his first major appearance).
When Keegan Bradley won the PGA in 2011, it was his first major title (in fact, it was his first major appearance).ap file photo

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Back in the day, when Jeff Sluman, Wayne Grady, John Daly, Steve Elkington, and Mark Brooks were raising the Wanamaker Trophy, the PGA Championship owned a reputation for crowning first-time major winners.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

From 1988-98, 10 of the 11 PGA winners had not previously won a major, a trend that has continued, though not at that torrid clip. Four of the last six PGA champions — Y.E. Yang (2009), Martin Kaymer (2010), Keegan Bradley (2011), and Jason Dufner (2013) — made the season’s final major their first major victory.

But that’s also become a golf trend elsewhere. Each of the other three men’s major championships, at least recently, have been won more often than not by first-timers. Starting with the 2001 Masters, there have been 59 majors contested; players who previously had never won a major championship have won 32 times: Masters (8 of 15), US Open (10 of 15), British Open (7 of 15), and PGA Championship (7 of 14).

Add it up, and more than half the time, a new member is being added to the major championship club, so what’s been affiliated with the PGA Championship all these years has in fact infiltrated the other three men’s majors.

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Will the same be in store this week at the 97th PGA Championship at Whistling Straits? Brandt Snedeker sure hopes so, because it would give him a chance of winning.

“Why not? Anything that can help me win one, I don’t care, I’ll take it,” said Snedeker, who has seven career wins on the PGA Tour, but has yet to claim a top-10 finish in any of his eight starts at the PGA Championship.

“I heard that, read something about it this week. I started thinking back about the last few champions, and there have been quite a few first-time winners here.

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“I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because the golf course changes every year, it’s not the same venue. Maybe this one feeds into everyone being in the same boat, and experience doesn’t really play a factor the way it might in some of the other majors.”

The Masters is played every year at Augusta National. The British Open currently uses a nine-course rotation, and visits St. Andrews every five years. The US Open has taken its championship to new places, including Chambers Bay this year, but almost always demands accuracy off the tee and a deft short game.

For years, the PGA Championship was viewed (and perhaps still is) as the weakest link among the four majors, with the easiest course setup leading to the lowest scores. But the PGA of America in recent years has selected stronger venues, toughened the setup, and always features the strongest major championship field.

Where it’s being held might have something to do with the spate of first-time major champions, according to the 2011 PGA Championship winner.

“All the other majors have a very specific type of play that will be rewarded,” said Bradley. “Here, I think, it’s just good golf all around. US Open, you’ve got to hit it very straight. British Open, you’ve got to learn to roll it up. Masters, you’ve got to hit it high and long. Here it’s just overall good golf.”

Bradley, a Vermont native and Hopkinton (Mass.) High School graduate, won while making his major championship debut, only the second player to do so since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline (Ben Curtis was the other, at the 2003 British Open).

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The best candidates for winning their first major this week aren’t making their debut. Snedeker has made 32 starts in major championships. Jason Day has made 20, but seems to be getting closer to that first major victory, with six top-five finishes, including a tie for fourth at last month’s British Open.

Dustin Johnson has been painfully close, from his tie for third at Whistling Straits in 2010 to his tie for second in the US Open at Chambers Bay. And Rickie Fowler finished in the top five of all four majors a year ago, making him a strong contender to become the latest first-time major winner at the PGA Championship.

“To be sitting here with two wins so far this year, [it’s] definitely been a successful year, but ultimately it would be nice to have a major championship on the résumé,” said Fowler, who won the Players Championship in May and the Scottish Open in July. “This would be a great week to start that.”

That’s the prevailing feeling at Whistling Straits — from everyone who hasn’t won a major championship yet. Most of those players will never become a major champion. Some will.

Perhaps this week’s winner won’t be a first-timer. Two of the first three majors this year were won by players who already had one. (Although Jordan Spieth didn’t wait long after his first major win to get another, did he?)

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But this tournament that dates to 1916 has a history of welcoming newcomers to the roll call of major champions. The other three have recently followed, especially the US Open. Does that make the PGA Championship the trend-setter it’s rarely accused of being? Imagine that.