SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – With five of the last six majors won by first-timers, the days of the biggest names hoarding the best titles may be over.
Ahead of Thursday’s start of the PGA Championship, players like Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, South African Louis Oosthuizen and Lucas Glover, who once only dreamed of hoisting a claret jug or Wanamaker Trophy now look at their unassuming practice-round-partners-turned-major-champions and think, “Why not me?”
“It’s more tangible,” said Padraig Harrington, who credits Michael Campbell of New Zealand with inspiring his major swing. Two years after Campbell’s victory at the 2005 U.S. Open, the Irishman won the British Open, quickly followed by a second straight claret jug and the 2008 PGA title. “You need that familiarity. You had that in the ’80s when Seve (Ballesteros) started winning majors and other (European) players followed. Mentally, they could see that it could be done.
“It’s the old story, once the record is broken, a lot of people can follow.”
Of course, breaking through is a lot easier when Tiger Woods is playing like a mere mortal.
With his personal life in turmoil, so is Woods’ game. He’s been stuck on 14 majors since the 2008 U.S. Open, and arrived at Whistling Straits fresh off the worst tournament of his career. He beat just one player in the 80-man field last weekend, and shot a whopping 18-over 298 at Firestone – a course where he’s won seven times.
“I’ll be honest, the feeling in the locker room is slightly different,” England’s Paul Casey said, choosing his words carefully. “With the way (Woods) played the past week, guys feel like this is wide open, and that’s not a feeling that a lot of guys have had before. Graeme McDowell played tremendous golf at the U.S. Open. So did Louis playing his golf at The Open. That, combined with the way Tiger played last week, I think guys now feel there are multiple possible winners this week.
“It’s different. Not a feeling we’ve had in a while.”
Woods could usually be counted on to win at least one major each season and, as recently as 2006, he won two of them. Throw in Phil Mickelson, and the world’s top two players combined to win six of the eight majors in 2005 and ’06. That’s a formidable club for an up-and-comer to crash.
But with every victory by a Glover or McDowell or Oosthuizen, the majors don’t seem quite so daunting.
Glover was 71st in the world when he won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. McDowell had to sweat out his exemption to the U.S. Open before holding off Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els at Pebble Beach. And Oosthuizen had made the cut at only one of his previous eight majors before winning at St. Andrews.
“I think the days of no-names getting in contention on Sunday afternoon and backing up, it doesn’t really happen anymore,” McDowell said. “Guys only have forward gears now, as opposed to anything else. Guys are not scared anymore.”
As if there was any doubt, McDowell turned to some unlikey sources for inspiration Sunday at Pebble Beach, when Woods, Mickelson and Els – multiple major winners – were chasing him.
“Y.E. Yang, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson – I was taking some belief from those guys doing it,” McDowell, the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open, said, rattling off a list of first-timers. “There’s no doubt, it has a knock-on effect.”
So who’s next?
Rory McIlroy is always a popular choice. McDowell’s fellow Northern Irishman tied the major-championship record with a 63 in the first round at the British Open, only to blow up with an 80 on Friday afternoon. But the 21-year-old player showed his mettle, closing 69-68 to finish in a tie for third.
There’s Ryo Ishikawa, the Japanese phenom who earlier this year shot a 58, the lowest score ever on a recognized tour. Paul Casey’s run at becoming the first Englishman since Faldo to win the British Open might have disappeared in a gorse bush, but his tie for third at St. Andrews shows he is as dangerous as he was last summer, when he climbed to No. 3 in the world before being sidelined by a rib injury.
Hunter Mahan is fresh off a win at Firestone. And don’t forget about local favorite Steve Stricker, whose rock steady consistency has him in position to claim the world No. 1 ranking – although he’d need a bit of help from Mickelson and Woods.
“Anyone that tees off in any of these events can win it,” Oosthuizen said. “I just think it’s getting to a stage where you can have, in the majors, different winners all the time.”
All that being said, no one’s about to count out Woods or Mickelson.
Woods’ debacle at Firestone allowed him to put in some extra time at Whistling Straits, and he sounded genuinely excited Tuesday about the progress he’s seen in his game. Mickelson may have stumbled in his opportunities to claim the world No. 1, but those struggles were put in a different light after he revealed Tuesday that he has psoriatic arthritis, which causes his immune system to attack his joints and tendons.
Mickelson first felt symptoms of the condition five days before the U.S. Open began, and experienced such intense pain he couldn’t walk. Medication has brought the illness under control, and Mickelson said there will be no long- or short-term negative effects on his health.
This major free-for-all may be maddening for golf fans who got used to having to worry about only a handful of players. But rather than seeing it as a sign the game is in disarray, McDowell said it’s a celebration of golf’s strength.
“We have such a wealth of talent all over the world – from Asia, from Europe, from the British Isles, from America,” McDowell said. “It’s just strong right now, the sport, and I think long may it continue.”