HOYLAKE, England — The rain was falling at Royal Liverpool, the site of the 143rd British Open, but Martin Kaymer, standing by the practice green in front of the clubhouse, was trying on new sunglasses. He pulled a pair out of a box, still with the plastic sleeves around the arms, and slipped them on his face amid the raindrops. He smiled.
Kaymer, the 29-year-old German, has been making his own sunny weather since winning the Players Championship in May and the U.S. Open (by eight strokes) in June. But will it continue? Rory McIlroy won a major in 2011 (also by a landslide) and another in 2012, but then went dormant. Louis Oosthuizen looked like he would never lose again when he won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews by seven shots, but it remains his only major title. And they’re hardly alone. Many of today’s stars have only one major title (Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Adam Scott), two majors (Kaymer, McIlroy, Bubba Watson), or no majors (Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson).
“There are a lot of guys at the same level at the minute,” said 1999 Open winner Paul Lawrie. “There are 10 or 11 guys who are mega, mega good, whereas Tiger was just that much better than everyone of that era.”
Woods, who leads all active players with 14 majors, was practicing in the rain Wednesday afternoon, hitting irons shots in between fellow range warriors Boo Weekley and Chris Wood. The always ebullient and engaging Weekley, who was hitting long irons while squeezing a large rubber ball between his knees, said something and Woods cracked up. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano approached and shook Woods’ hand, welcoming him back to competition after missing much of this year due to back surgery.
“It’s great to see him fully fit,” Fernandez-Castano said. “The golfing world missed him. Hopefully this is it for him in terms of injuries.”
Whether or not Woods still has what it takes to win majors is an open question, or an Open question, since he hasn’t won one since 2008. But it’s as unclear as ever who if anyone is the favorite to pick up where he left off.
McIlroy? “He’s due,” said 2009 British Open champ Stewart Cink. “He’s not always going to shoot 78 in the second round, like last week.”
Scott, who has been practicing here since last week and who placed T3 and second in the 2013 and 2012 Opens, respectively? “This course couldn’t be better for Adam Scott,” Cink said. “It’s a ball-striker’s paradise.”
Could Woods himself rediscover the magic? “Come on,” Cink said. “Of course he could win. He’s Tiger. I put him in my top three [favorites].”
Ian Poulter believes fields are deeper than they were even as recently as 2006, when Woods won the Open at Hoylake. Henrik Stenson agrees, and the numbers back them up. There are players from 27 countries in this Open, and many, like Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, are a legitimate threat to win.
“I think we’re going to struggle to see anyone dominate as much as Tiger did, or some of the great players before him,” said Stenson, who finished second to Phil Mickelson at last year’s Open at Muirfield, and tied for third at St. Andrews in 2010. “There are just too many great players, and too many guys who can win every week. I’m not saying it can’t happen. Of course if Martin keeps playing the way he did at the Players and at the U.S. Open — if you put that out there every other week you can win seven or eight times in a season, like Tiger did for a number of years.”
Comparing eras is always fraught with dewy sentimentality and faulty reasoning, but Stenson adds a reminder that there are people who think Woods’s 14 majors were tougher to win than Jack Nicklaus’s 18. Furthermore, says the Swede, who will go off with Woods and Angel Cabrera at 4:04 a.m. ET Thursday, “It’s going to be harder to get to 14 majors now than it was when Tiger did it, and it’ll be harder still to get to 14 majors in 20 years.”
Twenty years from now, Kaymer, the hottest player in the game, will be 49. The question remains: Has he now taken over for McIlroy as the man most likely to seize the game by the throat and refuse to let go?
“What we’re seeing with Kaymer, for me that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Fernandez-Castano said. “He has so much potential and works so hard and is so disciplined, Martin might become one of the best players ever from Europe, along guys like Seve and Faldo. Martin has got everything. He is that good, but still you don’t expect him to win by that much.”
Fernandez-Castano smiled. “Amazing, no? He’s still under the radar.”