One of the most bizarre stats related to the Open Championship is the ongoing English drought—no English golfer has won the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo in 1992. That means we’ve now witnessed 25 installments of the oldest major in golf, about half of them held in England, without an English winner. In that time, Americans have won 14 times, South Africa thrice, and the rest of the U.K. and British Isles—from Scotland to Ireland to Northern Ireland—have joined Zimbabwe and Australia and Sweden on the champion’s list. But the English?
They’re nowhere to be found.
It’s not just the Open, either. Since Faldo won the ’96 Masters, there have been exactly two English champions at any major—Justin Rose at the ’13 U.S. Open, and Danny Willett at the 2016 Masters. Take Faldo out of the equation, and things start to look really dire. Beyond him, only Rose and Willett stand between Tony Jacklin’s 1970 U.S. Open win and nearly 50 years of futility.
England’s failure to win big events looks even more remarkable when you consider the state of English golf, which is actually very good. Right now, English golfers make up six of the top 50, which is more than any other country except the United States. And a simple rundown of the best English golfers from the last few decades proves their excellence: Rose, Westwood, Poulter, Donald, Casey.
Two of them have reached the no. 1 world ranking, while Rose and Casey peaked at three, and Poulter hit number five. All have won multiple tournaments on various tours. All five have strong-to-excellent Ryder Cup records, and they’re joined in the younger generation by rising stars like Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Ross Fisher, Chris Wood, and Willett.
The state of English golf is just fine—they’re never going to be on a level with the U.S. due to the population gap (325 million to 53 million), but they’re a solid second, safely ahead of Australia and South Africa and Korea and Japan. Yet since Faldo’s ’92 win at the Open, they trail or are tied with the following countries in majors won: The U.S., South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Zimbabwe, and Fiji.
Let me state that a different way: One man from the Pacific island nation of Fiji has won as many major titles since 1992 as the entire nation of England. And if Greg Norman and Jordan Spieth hadn’t collapsed spectacularly in their respective Masters tragedies, you could add Canada, South Korea, and Argentina to that list. That’s the really crazy thing—even though the number of English championships in 25 years is already paltry, it should be even lower!
So, let’s ask the question: Why? Is it the case of a weird generational fluke, where all of a nation’s best players happen to be pretty bad at playing under pressure?
There’s evidence for that—we all know about Westwood’s travails at major championships, and things got so bad that he actually had a meltdown on Twitter after one of his failures. He is often considered the greatest player to never win a major, and nerves clearly get the better of him when the pressure’s on. Donald and Poulter have each posted eight top tens in majors without a win, and Casey has one-upped them with nine.
Then there’s Rose, who has fared the best of them all with 14 major top tens. He actually won, of course, which validates his career to an extent that the others likely won’t experience, even though it may still be considered a career underachievement when you take his great skill into account.
We’ll call this the Lost Generation Theory, and I think it’s an explanation that is borne out by the results.
But I have another theory: What if England just isn’t very good at winning things? Here’s my evidence:
—This current golfing drought isn’t an anomaly. England has boasted great modern champions in Faldo and Tony Jacklin, but in the years between their triumphs, from 1970 to 1987, no English golfer won a major. Before Jacklin, you had to go back almost 20 years to find another English winner (Max Faulkner in 1951). There were far more in the pre-War era, but that’s mostly a result of less competition.
—Despite being the “home of football,” the only World Cup they ever won was on home soil in 1966, and came as the result of a controversial extra-time goal after they conceded a disastrous goal in the final minutes. Beyond that win, the national team’s failure is well known—they didn’t even win the European Championship when they hosted.
—The last time an English tennis player won a grand slam was 1936. The situation got so bad that it almost ruined the career of Andy Murray, who had to carry the weight of English failure on his shoulders even though he’s not English.
—Even though the Royal Navy was once the pride of the known world, England hasn’t won an America’s Cup yacht race since 1851.
—England has never won a cricket World Cup, despite inventing the sport.
Is England just bad at winning? Has the decline of the English empire sapped their energy and spirit, and resulted in an unbreakable athletic ennui? And if that’s the case, who can break the Open Championship dry spell at Carnoustie?
The likeliest figure is Justin Rose, of course, who is behind only Dustin Johnson at 14/1. Fleetwood and Hatton are both on strong form behind him, and who knows—maybe this is the time when someone like Poulter or Casey will break through.
But smart money is on the side of history, and history is on the side of English failure. Whatever the original cause, the rising generation of English golfers have more than just their own anxieties to contend with—they’re fighting a broader wave of national athletic failure, and viewed from above, it looks mighty oppressive.