An era of dominance in the majors ended the last time the British Open was at Royal Birkdale, even if nobody knew it.
Tiger Woods piled up so many majors so quickly that when he had knee surgery following his 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines and had to sit out the last two majors, a few wags suggested that the next name engraved on the claret jug should include an asterisk.
Woods won 13 out of 36 majors in the nine years leading up to that 2008 British Open, and only three other players – Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen – won more than one. Sixteen players captured one major during that stretch.
In the 36 majors leading up to this next Open at Royal Birkdale, six players have won multiple majors. Rory McIlroy has won four of them. No one else has won more than twice, while 22 players have each won once.
There is no longer talk about an asterisk. Now it’s more like a question mark.
“I think the competition on a weekly basis is so tight out there and so tough,” defending champion Henrik Stenson said. “Whether it’s a trend or if this is going to continue or not, or if there is going to be a few guys stepping up and becoming second and third-time winners, I guess that’s yet to be seen. But in general, it’s very hard to predict who is going to do well any other week. It’s been like that in the last year-and-a-half in the majors, for sure.”
Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and became the seventh consecutive first-time major champion, a streak that began with Jason Day in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
It is the second-longest streak since 1934 when the Masters began. The longest streak was nine consecutive first-timers from Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open) to Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open), which coincided with Woods’ recovery from the mess in his personal life. The reason there wasn’t a long stretch of first-time major champions was a dominant figure – Woods, Nick Faldo and Nick Price, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.
Whether it’s a trend or merely a cycle, odds would seem to favor the streak ending at Royal Birkdale when the 146th edition of the British Open starts July 20.
No other links course in the current Open rotation has a better track record of rewarding major champions.
Padraig Harrington won at Birkdale in 2008 for his second straight British Open title (no asterisk necessary). A decade earlier, Mark O’Meara won his second major of the year when he beat Brian Watts in a playoff.
Only two of the eight British Open champions at Royal Birkdale had not previously won a major – Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 and Peter Thomson, who won the first of his five Open titles in 1954 – giving the links along the Lancashire Coast of England the lowest rate of first-time major champions on the Open rotation.
“It’s very difficult to win a first major,” Jordan Spieth said. “You’re dealing with somebody that has been there before.”
But in six of the last seven Grand Slam events, a major champion was the runner-up. The exception was the U.S. Open last month, in which none of the top 20 on the leaderboard in Wisconsin had ever won a major.
There are more candidates than ever to become a multiple major winner because 23 of the last 33 major champions had never won one before. Odds are one of them – Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Day – will pick off another one.
Then again, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler are among those who could keep the streak of first-timers going.
“Winning a major is very big,” said Scott, who finally got his at the 2013 Masters but hasn’t come close to another since then. “You want to be one of those guys who is winning majors walking through the locker room, because we do all have a high level of respect for each other and the amount of work that we put in and the level of golf that’s being played now. I think Brooks will now find out what that feels like, and I think that can spur people on, as well.
“There are a lot of guys playing at this level, and now they will be very motivated.”
No one is as motivated as Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world for the last five months. As dominant as he was in February and March, winning three straight tournaments against the strongest fields of the year at the time, the majors have been a mystery since he won the U.S. Open last year at Oakmont.
Johnson hasn’t played the weekend of a major since the British Open last year at Royal Troon. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship, withdrew from the Masters after wrenching his back from a slip down the stairs and then missed the cut at the U.S. Open. He has not played a tournament since then.
Royal Birkdale would seem to be right in his wheelhouse.
It’s not the longest course, but it plays big because of the wind, and it weaves along massive dunes by the Irish Sea. Harrington won last time at 3-over 283. No one has done better than 272 (Baker-Finch) at Royal Birkdale. Odds are against another scoring exhibition that Stenson and Phil Mickelson delivered last year. Mickelson opened with a 63. Stenson closed with a 63 and won with the lowest score (264) in major championship history.
Royal Birkdale doesn’t have a par 5 until the 15th hole, and then it has another on the 17th. Both are reachable in two shots depending on the strength of the wind.
Rose has mix memories of Royal Birkdale. As a 17-year-old amateur, he chipped in for birdie on the final hole in 1998 and tied for fourth. He returned in 2008 and shot 82 in the third round to tumble out of contention.
An Englishman has not won an Open in England since Tony Jacklin in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. The home hope might be Tommy Fleetwood, who started the year at No. 99 in the world and now is up to No. 14 after big victories in Abu Dhabi and France, and close calls in Mexico City and the U.S. Open.
Fleetwood grew up in Southport, though the closest he got to Royal Birkdale was when his father would walk the dog by the links course at night and young Tommy would sneak out and hit a few shots when no one was looking.
They’ll be watching now.