There’s a first-timer for every major, it seems
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - When the only person capable of winning golf’s Grand Slam this year is a portly, balding, 58-year-old Englishman who answers to “Chubby’’ and holds court off the course instead of on it - he’s an agent - you know it has been an unusual major championship season.
Blown leads and blowouts (by the same person, no less), historic birdie runs, heartaches, and heartwarming victories have defined the first three majors of 2011. As the golf world turns to Atlanta Athletic Club today for the 93d PGA Championship, there are those trying to put bows on super years, and those trying to salvage lost ones.
Trends and streaks also will be popular talking points, with Americans looking to end a six-major victory drought, the longest on record. Phil Mickelson, at the 2010 Masters, is the most recent American to win one.
Since then, the six majors were won by players who had never before taken home one of golf’s four big trophies, lending a powerful voice to the argument that the game is trending, if it’s not already there, toward a global battle royale as opposed to the one dominated by Tiger Woods for so many years.
“I think it’s exciting when there’s lots of different winners, and I think it’s exciting when there’s a dominant player,’’ said Lee Westwood, who is ranked No. 2 in the world but is still looking for major No. 1. “I think it’s healthy for the game both ways.
“It’s something you can’t control, so you just . . . what you get is what you get. It’s better than saying, ‘It is what it is.’ ’’
Bill Belichick might disagree, but even the Patriots coach (who plays a little golf) might be aware of the parity creeping into the men’s professional game these days. It’s partly due to Woods’s two-year personal and professional struggles, but also to upstarts such as Rory McIlroy (US Open), Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Louis Oosthuizen (last year’s British Open), and defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer announcing their major presence.
Graeme McDowell (last year’s US Open) and Darren Clarke (British Open), along with McIlroy, have sent Northern Ireland golf fans on quite a ride.
In addition to Westwood, Luke Donald, Jason Day, and Adam Scott might be good bets to push the streak of non-US, first-time major winners to seven. Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, and Matt Kuchar would love to end the American drought with their first majors. All eight players are ranked among the top 11 in the world.
“I think all of the American players have probably thought about [the drought] because it’s in the media quite a bit,’’ Stricker said. “I think what’s happened the last six majors, you know, I think fuels the fire of Americans to try to get better and to work at it and try to break that streak, no doubt.’’
Said Donald, who since May has been the world’s top-ranked player: “Majors are in this day and age made out to be the biggest deal. People put a lot of pressure on the guys who haven’t won, like myself and Lee and Adam and whoever else it might be. There’s pressure to win them. Sometimes you can go to these events and just try too hard.’’
Westwood, who could make it four straight majors won by players represented by Chubby Chandler (hence the Chubby Slam), has worked with a sports psychologist in an attempt to make this week feel just like any other, i.e. with no added pressure. Donald said he has tried just about every mental approach, but he is 0 or 33 in majors.
“I haven’t won one yet, so I don’t know what the correct answer is,’’ Donald said. “I’ll keep trying all different, various ways until hopefully I pick up one of these trophies.’’
It might happen here. The past two PGA champions - Kaymer last year, Y.E. Yang in 2009 - were first-time major winners. The past three (Padraig Harrington won in 2008) were not American.
One thing is for certain: Donald, Westwood, Stricker, and everybody else should be in for a stern test. What awaits them is an Atlanta Athletic Club course that be stretched beyond 7,400 yards for a par-70, one that features quick greens, plenty of hazards, and a four-hole closing stretch that some players are calling the most difficult in major championship history: a 260-yard par-3, 476-yard par-4, 207-yard par-3, and 507-yard par-4. Better make your birdies early.
“Scoring will be much more difficult,’’ said David Toms. “Par is going to be a good score on almost every hole this time around.’’
Toms would know. In the history of men’s professional golf, 418 majors have been played: 75 Masters, 111 US Opens, 140 British Opens, and 92 PGA Championships. Nobody has ever completed 72 holes in a major in fewer strokes than the 265 Toms needed when he won the 2001 PGA here.
Changes have been made since then. The course has been lengthened, fairways narrowed, and new grasses installed, including a change from bent to bermuda on the greens. Add it up, and another 15-under-par winning total seems unlikely.
“I would be shocked, I really would,’’ Toms said. “But you never know. These guys that bomb the ball now, if they have a great week driving it, the distance they can hit, maybe. But I would think that somewhere along the way, the golf course is going to get you.’’
It’ll get all but one. Come Sunday, no matter the winner, there will be plenty to talk about. It has been that kind of year.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.