The casual sports fan watching Louis Oosthuizen dominate the field at the British Open at St. Andrews and Graeme McDowell outlast Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach probably has two questions: Who are these guys? And, what the heck is going on?
The answer is a combination of three factors: Tiger, golf’s success in becoming an international game, and the unique qualities of the U.S. Open and the British Open.
No explanation of how these relatively unheralded players won the last two majors is complete without talking about Woods. The last time the U.S. Open was held at Pebble Beach, he destroyed the field, and he was almost as tough in his 2000 and 2005 British Open wins at St. Andrews. Four months into his post-scandal comeback, it’s clear that Tiger isn’t the Tiger of old. He wasn’t consistent with his driver at Pebble Beach, and even more ominously, he couldn’t putt at St. Andrews. With Tiger in a slump, it allows a lot more guys into the mix. Trust me, if 2000 or 2005 Tiger had showed up at Pebble and St. Andrews this year, he’d be two majors closer to Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major championship victories.
But even when Tiger returns to form — that’s when, not if — we’re going to see a fair share of major winners who are not household names. Actually, McDowell was already a household name in my house. He didn’t come out of nowhere, and if you follow golf then you’d seen McDowell’s name on more than a few leaderboards at majors. The success of Northern Ireland’s McDowell and South Africa’s Oosthuizen proves the game has reached every corner of the globe. International players now make up almost a third of the PGA Tour. We can’t count on the same four or five Americans and a handful of international players to win most majors. It’s anyone’s — and everyone’s — game now.
The unique qualities of the U.S. Open and the British Open also lend themselves to more first-time and lesser-known champions. The courses on the British Open rota are simply unlike anything else in the game, and not many American players are familiar with links golf. Add the variable weather and a more international field, and it’s no surprise that a good wind player like Oosthuizen won. I can’t imagine Greg Norman or Tom Watson, who contended at the 2008 and 2009 British Opens, making a run in a Masters or a PGA Championship against a stronger field on an American-style parkland course.
In the U.S. Open, the penal rough and super-fast greens are equalizers that allow less-talented players to compete with guys like Woods and Mickelson. It isn’t as bad as 20 years ago when Andy North won, but the fast greens and thick rough can still lead to unusual winners like McDowell and Lucas Glover.
Then we come to the real problem with the U.S. Open, which the USGA needs to fix. How can Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose — two of the top guys on Tour this year and legitimate threats at Pebble — not qualify for the tournament? That’s ridiculous and that’s how you end up with Gregory Havret challenging McDowell down the stretch instead of Rose or Fowler. Havret played great, but you can’t determine the best player in the world when you don’t invite them all.
The Masters can make sure it has the best players in the world because it’s an invitational tournament, and the PGA Championship in recent history has had the strongest field of any major (95 to 98 of the world’s top 100), which is why we’re likely to see a more well-known player win at Whistling Straits next month.
Not that I’m complaining, except about Fowler and Rose not getting into the U.S. Open. Part of what makes the majors so much fun is the differences between them. You’re more likely to see a first-time winner at the U.S. Open and British Open, while the Masters and PGA Championship favor a more established star. It’s always exciting when Tiger or Phil wins a major, but if you can’t enjoy watching fun, gutsy players like Oosthuizen and McDowell become champions, then maybe you’re watching the wrong sport.