So you probably noticed this: Thirteen different men have won the last 13 major championships in golf. The overriding story in golf over those 13 tournament, of course, is that none of the 13 were Tiger Woods. But there has been another story -- a changing story -- that also has been told.
First, take a look at the 13 winners:
2008 PGA: Padraig Harrington
2009 Masters: Angel Cabrera
2009 U.S. Open: Lucas Glover
2009 British Open: Tom Watson*
2009 PGA: Y.E. Yang
2010 Masters: Phil Mickelson
2010 U.S. Open: Graeme McDowell
2010 British Open: Louis Oosthuizen
2010 PGA: Martin Kaymer
2011 Masters: Charl Schwartzel
2011 U.S. Open: Rory McIlroy
2011 British Open: Darren Clarke
2011 PGA: Keegan Bradley
*No, damn, it was Stewart Cink.
Here's the thing about that list: Just about every time someone new wins a major championship in golf, there's a celebration about the future of the game. You can read about this now with Keegan Bradley. We at SI call him a "New Sensation." The PGA Confidential wags discuss whether his guts or his talent is more remarkable. ESPN writes about him fulfilling his overpowering potential. Yahoo uses the headline "American Man," Golf Digest calls him the "Comeback Kid"
"Golf has a new star," CBS' Jim Nantz says.
That might be true. Then again, it might not. After all, it was just two months ago we were calling Rory McIlroy Golf's new star. And before that, we were swooning over Charl Schwartzel's effortless looking golf swing. And before that Martin Kaymer jumped to No. 1 in the world golf rankings. And before that, Louis Oosthuizen -- who had made one major championship cut in his career -- won the British Open by seven shots and was being called the new Gary Player.
Golf is a different sport from the other individual games we play. Tennis, for instance, is a sport meant to be dominated. The last 26 major championships have been won by four men -- Roger Federer (12), Rafael Nadal (10), Novak Djokovic (3) and Juan Martin Del Potro (1), who at the 2009 U.S. Open stunned Nadal in the semifinal and Federer in the final. The reason tennis is meant to be dominated, I think, is that you only have to beat one player on any one day. So for Rafa Nadal to win the 2011 French Open, for example, he had to beat these seven players:
1st round: John Isner (ranked 27th in the world, tough early matchup, took five sets)
2nd round: Pablo Andujar (ranked 46th in the world, fellow Spaniard, straight sets)
3rd round: Antonio Veic (ranked 183rd, not sure how he reached third round, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0)
4th round: Ivan Ljubicic (ranked 30th in the world, straight sets)
Quarterfinal: Robin Soderling (ranked 5th in world, straight sets)
Semifinal: Andy Murray (ranked 4th in the the world, straight sets)
Final: Roger Federer (maybe best to ever play, declining, 6-1 in fourth set)
Nadal is a better player at this moment than any of those seven. He's never lost to Isner. Andujar idolizes him. Veic isn't in his league. He's beaten Ljubicic seven out of nine, Soderling six out of eight, Murray 12 out of 16 and we all know his overwhelming record against Federer, especially on clay. He was the heavy favorite every single time he went out to play. At this moment there is only one player in the world who seems to have his number, Novak Djokovic, and their paths did not cross in Paris (Federer upset Djokovic in the semifinals). Unless he underachieved, Nadal was going to win the French Open. And that's what I mean:Tennis is a sport meant to be dominated by the best players.
Golf? No. The best player in the world, whoever he happens to be at the moment, isn't ever LIKELY to win a major championship. Since Nicklaus won his first major championship, you would expect golf was ruled by the names that have become so familiar -- Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Watson, Faldo, Woods -- and in a way it has been. But Nicklaus won his first major championship almost 50 years ago. And in those 50 years, 103 different golfers have won major championships. ONE HUNDRED AND THREE.
Of those, 65 won just won time, an astonishing array of players from Al Geiberger to Zack Johnson. Another 18 won twice, and this includes Johns as different as Miller and Daly.
The parity is even more daunting the last 20 or so years, with the improvement of equipment and coaching, with the deepening of fields, with golfers getting better conditioned. Tiger Woods is the only golfer over the two decades to win even five major championships. Phil Mickelson is the only other one to win four. Of course, there are only so many majors and Tiger has won so many of them … still, since the PGA Championship in 1990, we've had four stretches of at least 10 majors in a row where a different player won each time. The streak twice reached 15 straight majors with different winners.
But this 13-major streak feels different because except for Harrington's win at the PGA (his second major in a row), Angel Cabrera's win at the Masters (his second major victory) and Mickelson's win at the Masters (his fourth major), these are all first-time winners. And so each victory has felt like it COULD be a harbinger an golf's next era. Each young player to come along -- or even not so young player -- could be the next Watson, the next Faldo, the next somebody.
Bradley could be the next star. He certainly plays a good game of golf. He hits the ball a long way. He shows great touch coming out of the bunkers. He displayed resiliency by making back-to-back birdies after a triple bogey that seemed to knock out any chances he had of winning the PGA. He seems likable, has a lot of charisma, has won twice as a rookie … he makes for a good story, and we all want a good story. Wouldn't it be great if he was the next …
But … maybe it was just his week. Chubby Chandler, the suddenly ubiquitous golf agent who represents the golfers who won the first three major champions this year, said something interesting about his golfer Lee Westwood, who might be the best golfer to never win a major championship. He said that Westwood probably feels more pressure GETTING INTO contention than BEING IN contention. I think that's a pretty smart thought. The character and draw of golf is that it is ever changing -- the courses change, the conditions change, the pin placements change, the contenders change, the bounces change. Consistency is elusive. Bounces fluctuate. Your putting may vary.
Tiger's remarkable run was remarkable because he beat those odds. He showed up major after major. From 1997 to 2010, he missed just two cuts in major championships. Sure, you can talk about the 14 he won, but he finished second five other times, third three times and so on. The game of golf pushes hard against the sort of momentum. Martin Kaymer wins the PGA one year, misses the cut the next. Phil Mickelson comes into Augusta a favorite after winning a tournament, he never sparks and finishes 27th. Fred Couples' major championship career is a remarkable series of brilliant moments, injuries, missed cuts, near misses and early Sunday afternoon waves to the gallery.
You want to hear an amazing statistic? From 1970 to 1981 -- a dozen years -- Jack Nicklaus played in all 48 major championships. He made the cut in 47 of them. He finished in the Top 10 in 41 of them. FORTY ONE. That's why Nicklaus was a man apart. Yes, it's impressive that in those dozen years he won 10 major championships. That's amazing. But I would argue the 41 Top 10 finishes tells you even more. Every single professional golfer who makes it consistently into major championship field is a great golfer, capable of four days of brilliance. Getting there was the hard part. Getting into contention against these fields, that is the hard part.
Winning? No, of course, that's not easy either. But even though it's the better story line, I would argue that winning a major championship isn't what makes a golfer great. No, it's putting yourself in contention, time after time, giving yourself chance after chance after chance. Even Nicklaus -- as great a competitor as golf has ever known -- couldn't win most of the time when he got into contention. He finished second nine times in that remarkable 12-year stretch, finished third another five times. That is golf. I hope Keegan Bradley is the next star. Golf needs one. But we'll see what happens at Augusta. And then we'll see what happens at Olympic. And then we'll see what happens at Royal Lytham. Keegan Bradley certainly became notable on Sunday. What he doesn't want is to do now is consistently be on that major championship list of "notables who missed the cut."