SOUTHPORT, England – The last time the game’s oldest member-guest was played along this stretch of Irish Sea coast an Irishman blew through more championship dogma than the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA finals.
Much like LeBron James and company, who became the first team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit last year, Padraig Harrington became the first European player to successfully defend his title at The Open since James Braid did it at the turn of the 20th century (1906), and just for good measure he did so from the poor side of what turned out to be a soulless draw.
Golf being arguably the most capricious form of sports predictability where the status quo rarely stands a chance, Harrington’s triumph was nothing short of inconceivable, which easily explains why any notion of a true favorite this week has been discarded.
Technically, Jordan Spieth has been installed as the man to beat, with local bookmakers moving the American to a 14-1 frontrunner early Wednesday, just ahead of Dustin Johnson.
But those easily identifiable regulars aside, the 146th edition of The Open is anything but regular or predictable, a reality that begins with a golf course that played to a 74.86 scoring average in ’08 when the claret jug last made a cameo to this corner of England, more than a stroke higher than the next-toughest layout that season.
Those who endured that slugfest remember fierce winds that made play nearly impossible on Day 1 with gusts to 35 mph, which makes a similar forecast for this week worth noting.
Put another way, championships that are often decided by an untimely gust rarely stay on script.
Yet beyond the obvious rub of links golf is a trend that is slowly inching its way toward tradition, with the last seven Grand Slam gatherings won by first-time major winners.
Gone are the days of Tiger Woods winning majors at such an alarming rate that players considered “B flight” honors a realistic goal some weeks.
Some think the phenomenon is the byproduct of a missing dominant player, but parity seems the more likely culprit with six of the top 10 players in the world ranking having won majors in the last three years.
“Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well, and a lot of the guys that are playing really well haven't won a major like, the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas or whoever it may be,” Rory McIlroy said. “No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck. But it's so hard these days to separate yourself.”
McIlroy explained the phenomenon is a reality of the modern game, where technology and cutting-edge teaching have dramatically narrowed the gap between the game’s best.
“That's why the margins are so fine, and that's why you're finding all these guys so closely grouped together because it's so hard to find that little percent or 2 percent that separates you from the rest of the pack,” he said.
But if the Northern Irishman’s explanation is the most comprehensive reasoning behind the trend, there’s also something to be said for the inevitable ebb and flow of even the game’s best players.
Consider that Johnson, who was the favorite at Royal Birkdale before being unseated on the eve of this week’s championship, was as dominant as anyone earlier this year after winning three consecutive starts, but he hasn’t played the weekend at a major since last year’s Open and is fresh off back-to-back missed cuts.
The same could be said of McIlroy, who has been slowed this season by injury and has missed the cut in three of his last four worldwide events; or Day, whose best finish is a playoff loss at the AT&T Byron Nelson and has missed the weekend in his last two events.
The truth is, it’s easier to make an argument for another first-time winner this week at Royal Birkdale, with players like world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama seemingly poised on the brink of a Grand Slam breakthrough.
The Japanese star finished 11th at the Masters, second at the U.S. Open and proved his links prowess two weeks ago with a tie for 14th at the Irish Open. Or Rahm, who is fresh off his victory in Ireland and having proven himself against the game’s best with top-3 finishes at both this year’s World Golf Championships.
The most obvious choice to extend the first-timer’s trend to eight straight may be Rickie Fowler. Although he seemed destined to win his first major at last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished tied for fifth after a pedestrian closing round, he’s played some of his best Grand Slam golf at The Open.
In seven starts he’s missed the cut just once at The Open and finished runner-up in 2014, two shots behind eventual champion McIlroy, and fifth in ’11.
And these obvious choices ignore the normal standbys, like Lee Westwood or Paul Casey, who have both played well at The Open in the past but remain on the wrong side of the major margin.
“I think it's a really impressive stat and it speaks to the state of the game. There are a lot of tremendous young players right now,” Spieth said. “And then you've got guys like Henrik [Stenson] and Dustin [Johnson]. They are still young, but they have been around in contention many, many times – and sooner or later it was going to happen for them. And it did. It was just a matter of time for them.”
Picking a winner any week in golf has become a zero-sum game, and the modern major landscape has proven to be even more mercurial when it comes to anything even close to predictability.