One of the strangest features of the post-Tiger era in professional golf – and yes, the Tiger Woods era is very much over – is how often the major championships are captured by first-time winners.
It’s almost as if the minute Tiger stopped dominating, there was a mutual agreement among the game’s best players that the age of monopoly had come to an end, and that it was time to share the wealth. Starting in 2009, the year after Tiger won his 14th and final major, 22 of the past 33 major champions have been first-timers.
The longest streak in that series was nine straight, but we’re currently on a six-slam run of maiden champions. Jason Day started it at the 2015 PGA Championship, and it’s continued with triumphs by Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, and Sergio Garcia – new champions all.
Here’s some context: in the 39 seasons between 1970 and 2008, there was only one year when all four champions were first-timers, and that came in 2003. The current statistics are absolutely unprecedented, and represent a sea change in the sport. We could debate endlessly on why this is happening – maybe the money and equipment has leveled the sport, or maybe we’re witnessing a generation of such unique talent that nobody can begin to dominate – but we can’t debate the results. And it begs the obvious question…will it happen again at this weekend’s U.S. Open?
I fall on the side of No. Look at the names of the six first-timers again: Day, Willett, Johnson, Stenson, Walker, Garcia. Other than perhaps Willett, all of them are elite golfers, and they share one thing in common – it’s strange that they’ve never won before. These men are not flukes. Their time had come, and it would be hard to find anyone to argue that they didn’t deserve their Major. In fact, many names on that list probably deserved more than just one.
All of which is to say, it’s very difficult to look at the current U.S. Open field and find an old hand like Stenson or DJ or Walker who hasn’t already nabbed a Major. It will take one of the young guns like Jon Rahm or Hideki Matsuyama or Brooks Koepka to keep the streak alive, but although their individual games are up to the task, Erin Hills is a monster of a course that will ask too much of any player without the mental and emotional experience of having won a Major. (I mean, the fescue grass alone could drive a person crazy, as Kevin Na discovered to his dismay.)
Plus, those young guns haven’t exactly acquitted themselves well in recent Majors. Of the six first-time champs, none were under 27, and at the risk of repeating myself, the U.S. Open requires the kind of fortitude that only years of experience can produce. It’s no secret that Mike Davis and the USGA idealise difficult, and they cultivate courses that test every aspect of a player’s game.
In a perfect world, they like the U.S. Open champion to shoot around even par, and though the last three champions have bested that mark, there were not many golfers in the red. In those three years, only 15 golfers combined managed to break par. In the two years before that, exactly zero did.
Erin Hills, located outside Milwaukee, WI, is no exception. It’s long enough to test even the biggest hitters, the greens are fast, the bunkers are brutal and that fescue…is death. You’re going to see a lot of lost balls this week, and even players who manage to find their balls may choose to accept a penalty rather than hack their way out – a dicey proposition at best.
That said, the fairways are wider than usual for a U.S. Open, so if a player like Johnson or McIlroy can put together an incredible weekend driving the ball long and straight, this course is there for the taking. But there’s one more element that could ruin a lot of rounds, and that’s the wind – if it’s howling in Wisconsin, expect even par to be a trophy-winning score.
Here are three veteran champions with a great shot this weekend:
Surprise, surprise. The market leader is also my favorite. I’ve said enough about DJ’s length, so it’s time to praise his other skills, which often go underrated for the simple fact that he can drive a ball 400 yards. But his iron game, his putting game, and his wedge game have been almost equally impressive during his recent hot streak, and he’ll be able to manage a course like Erin Hills better than people think.
He finished an agonising second at Chambers Bay, he won at Oakmont, and I believe he’s about to post a third straight terrific U.S. Open result in Wisconsin. Let’s just hope he can avoid falling down the stairs this time.
It’s been almost cruel how close Rose has come to winning a Masters championship in the past three years. He got beat by Spieth’s record showing in 2015, despite a fairly ridiculous -14 score of his own, and the one time Sergio Garcia failed to collapse on a Major Sunday was the 2017 Masters, where Rose was victimised once more.
His lack of a second Major means that some have forgotten what a masterful course manager he can be, especially in situations where skill with a variety of shots is a prerequisite. I’d be shocked to see him outside the top eight places that Paddy is paying.
Ignore Schwartzel at your peril – his form has been solid all year, from his third place showing at the Masters in April to his runner-up finish last week in Memphis. He’s susceptible to a high round now and again, but as long as he can keep his mistakes in check, it will hurt him less at Erin Hills, because everyone will have a high round eventually. I love Schwartzel’s chances, and I expect him to surprise a golf world that has largely forgotten his name.