British Open friendly to first-timers and greats alike

July 14, 2011 

During the decade of Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay, golf's majors were the playgrounds of the established, the proven and the closers. Players of that ilk and a handful of others dominated leaderboards at the four prime championships, giving Angus beef to the meaty thought that winning a major is something that must be learned before accomplished.

It's an assertion, however, that is under significant doubt as first-time winners -- some well-known and others virtually unknown -- are breaking through to win their first majors at a noticeable rate. And with the British Open Championship getting under way this morning at the historic Royal St. George's, it's a growing trend that very well may continue, considering the tournament's history of debuting promising and sometimes unexpected talent to the world.

Including Rory McIlroy's resplendent dominance in last month's U.S. Open at Congressional, seven of the past eight major champions have been first-time major winners -- a run dating back to Stewart Cink's victory at the 2009 British Open and one that has since been interrupted only by Phil Mickelson's 2010 Masters, his third win at Augusta and fourth career major title.

It's fair to debate whether this streak of first-timers registers as an anointing of a new generation of golfers looking to replace the old guard or is just a standard blip on the screen. On one side, the potential of Europeans Martin Kaymer (2010 PGA), Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open) and McIlroy is undeniable. It's easy to see these three hoisting major trophies in the near future.

Yet on the far court, there are unknown major winners Charl Schwartzel (2010 Masters) and Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open) and veteran journeyman Cink and Tiger Woods-slayer Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) who have broken through with somewhat questionable promise of doing so again.

Further complicating the discussion is the fact the world's two top-ranked players -- Luke Donald and Lee Westwood -- continue to search for a first major despite some close calls. In fact, a look at the world's top 10 reveals several players without a victory on golf's biggest stage, including Americans Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney.

Speaking of America, only two of its youngest players -- Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson -- have truly contended for a major championship during the past two years or so. In fact, few Americans of any age have won, much less contended, for majors recently. One has to go all the way back to Mickelson's victory at the 2010 Masters to find an American who won a major -- a stretch of five straight tournaments.

Whether our stateside crop of young guns and hungry veterans are poised to end that trend and continue the first-timer movement is a good question. The favorites to do so this weekend include the likes of Watson, Stricker, Kuchar and Watney; but at the British Open, it is often the unexpected that is expected.

Pointing in that favor is the fact that Open venues have been very kind to American players seeking initial tastes of major glory. Consider the list of modern day players who have won their first and only major on the links of the Old World. There's Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, Todd Hamilton, Mark Calcavecchia, David Duval, Cink and Ben Curtis. Not a bad list of golfers if keeping score at home.

Having said that, the Open Championship also has been a friendly bloke to European and International players seeking to taste from the claret jug. World renowned players such as Greg Norman and Nick Faldo won their first, as did unknowns such as Paul Lawrie and reigning champ Oosthuizen.

So, over the next four days, streaks are on the line while foreign and American-born players alike fight for first-time glory or another taste of the ultimate triumph. As with most Open Championships, the course and the weather will have significant say in which players make it to Sunday in contention. Royal St. George's has produced a surprise champion in Curtis (2003) and a renowned one in Norman (1993) in its past two times as an Open venue.

This weekend, that course just as likely could produce another surprise as it could celebrate greatness fulfilled. Should it crown another first-time winner, as some expect it will, the debate will continue whether theses major newbies are ascending to the top or just filling a void until a former dominant player reemerges or another emerges to stay for some time.

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