Late on a major championship Sunday, when the pressure is the thickest and every contending golfer’s stomach is in a double-loop knot, you would want to put your money on someone who has been through the wringer and come out with a trophy. You would bet on someone whose nerves have withstood the final crush and who has won a major title.
And you would lose.
That is the way it has been for the past 10 majors. Nine of those big tournaments have been won by someone who never had won a major before, with the only exception having been Jordan Spieth’s victory last summer at the British Open.
Whatever the reason, coincidence, a sign that experience is overrated, a lack of superstars or an abundance of outstanding players on tour, it is obvious newcomers clearly have owned major Sundays since late 2015.
Given that string, it was more laughable than understandable that television analysts spoke ominously of the major champions who were chasing Patrick Reed at the Masters, as if that should have scared him. It looks silly in retrospect that Rory McIlroy was considered the overwhelming favorite heading into the final day at Augusta, despite a three-stroke deficit, because he had won four majors. His resume did not prevent him from having an awful round.
Reed won and followed Jason Day, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas into the greatest concentration of first-time winners in any 10-major stretch since the modern Grand Slam era began in 1934. First-time winners have become so commonplace that golf people have stopped noticing.
Tiger Woods, for instance, seemed a little surprised when he was asked about it recently. He considered it just a matter of history repeating itself, saying it was reminiscent of what happened about 10 years ago, “After Paddy won his two.” True, there was a spate of first-timers after Padraig Harrington won two in a row in 2008, but that was six of 10, not nine of 10 (and none of those six has won another).
“It’s a different generation of guys now who are winning, guys in their 20s,” Woods said. “So, it’s just the turnover rate.”
Xander Schauffele, 24, who tied for fifth in his first U.S. Open last year and went on to win the Tour Championship, said, “You can attribute it to Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) and that whole era coming through and really inspiring young golfers to play golf.”
Long Island golf pro Michael Hebron of Smithtown Landing, a PGA Hall of Famer who has extensively studied the connection between the mind and the game, said, “You play golf to learn golf and the people who come out on tour now are better prepared to play tournament golf.”
Hebron added that the trend is a fulfillment of something he heard from University of Alabama coach Conrad Rehling at a seminar 30 years ago. “He said that when he starts to get the guys who go out for football, the guys who go out for basketball and the guys who go out for baseball to come out for golf, then golf will change,” the local pro said. “We have athletes playing the game.”
More athletes playing golf means more good golfers. As Austin Cook, a rookie but already a winner on the PGA Tour, said, “Everybody who tees it up in one of these tournaments can win. There used to be like 10 or 15 guys who could win. Then 20, 30, 40 as the game grew. Now, every single one of the guys out here can win.”
Whether that is good news for fans is another question. The public always has been captivated by dominant individuals or teams. Woods draws high television ratings. The NBA’s popularity is soaring in an era that has the same few elite teams every year. At the moment, when winning a second major seems so difficult, it is hard to imagine anyone rolling up eight, 10 or more. It could mean that the U.S. Open this week, like the rest of the majors these days, could be wide open.
“It shows me, along with every other young golfer, that it can be done,” Schauffele said. “As simple as that. Obviously, there’s a lot to it, the process of winning. But the fact that we’re out here means it is sort of right in front of us.”
Nine of the last 10 winners of Major championships were first-time Major winners. Jordan Spieth also won the 2015 Masters:
Patrick Reed 2018Masters
Jordan Spieth2017 British Open
Brooks Koepka2017U.S. Open
Jimmy Walker 2016PGA
Henrik Stenson2016British Open
Dustin Johnson2016U.S. Open