Trend of first- time ma­jor win­ners isn’t go­ing away

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour nar­mour@ us­ato­day. com USA TO­DAY Sports

ERIN, WIS. It’s hard to win a ma­jor. Get­ting a sec­ond, third or fourth hasn’t ex­actly been easy of late, either.

The last six golf ma­jor cham­pi­onships have been won by first­timers, and there’s no rea­son to think that trend won’t con­tinue at the U. S. Open. Justin Thomas, Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler — they’re all mak­ing a case to be the next new­bie.

Louis Oosthuizen and Ser­gio Gar­cia are the only play­ers in the top 25 af­ter the third round with ma­jors on their ré­sumés — and, at 4 un­der, eight shots be­hind Harman, they’re not ex­actly breath­ing down the lead­ers’ necks.

“There’s a lot of very good young play­ers that are com­ing up,” said Dustin John­son, who won’t be win­ning his sec­ond ma­jor af­ter miss­ing the cut at Erin Hills. “There’s a lot of tal­ented golfers out here on the PGA Tour and through­out the world, and so that’s why.”

It’s been al­most two years — Zach John­son in the 2015 Bri­tish Open — since some­one with a ma­jor won an­other one. Dur­ing that span, Ja­son Day ( PGA Cham­pi­onship), Danny Wil­lett ( Masters), John­son ( U. S. Open), Hen­rik Sten­son ( Bri­tish Open), Jimmy Walker ( PGA) and Gar­cia ( Masters) added their names to the list of ma­jor champs.

Not ex­actly one- hit won­ders, that list. John­son is No. 1 in the world and had sev­eral spec­tac­u­lar near- misses in the ma­jors. Day al­ready had four wins on the PGA Tour and nine top- 10 fin­ishes in the ma­jors. Sten­son won the FedExCup se­ries and the Euro­pean Tour’s “Race to Dubai” in 2013, the first player to ac­com­plish such a dou­ble. He also won The Tour Cham­pi­onship that year.

Gar­cia con­tended at his first ma­jor when he was 19 and was sad­dled with that dreaded “Best Player Never to Win” ti­tle for the bet­ter part of two decades. Walker has fin­ished in the top 10 of the money list the last three years — and count­ing. Even Wil­lett had es­tab­lished him­self as one of the top play­ers on the Euro­pean Tour.

“We’re not see­ing un­known names break through and just walk away with a ma­jor cham­pi­onship,” said Justin Rose, who had his break­through at the U. S. Open in 2013. “These are guys that have worked hard. They’re at the top end of their game. They’ve prob­a­bly all been top five in the world when they’ve won their ma­jor.”

While that’s true, it also speaks to the tal­ent that’s not there. Yes, I’m talk­ing about Tiger Woods.

Be­gin­ning with the U. S. Open in 2000, Woods won 12 of the next 35 ma­jors. But since his last ma­jor ti­tle, at the U. S. Open in 2008, no one has dom­i­nated like Woods did.

Oh sure, Rory McIl­roy has four in the last six years, in­clud­ing the Bri­tish Open and PGA in 2014. Jor­dan Spi­eth won the Masters and the U. S. Open in 2015.

But as each was on the verge of be­com­ing golf’s next 600- pound go­rilla, he tailed off. Blame in­juries for McIl­roy’s slow­down. Blame the 12th hole at Au­gusta Na­tional for Spi­eth’s.

“It’s just hap­pened to be the case,” said Spi­eth, whose 4 over Satur­day likely means he’ll fin­ish out­side the top 10 for a fifth con­sec­u­tive ma­jor. “There’s a lot of fan­tas­tic play­ers who have been play­ing well this en­tire year that are up on the first page of the leader­board and guys that have been play­ing well re­cently.

“If you’re in good form, that’s go­ing to stay here.”

Only once in the his­tory of golf has there been a longer stretch of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Be­gin­ning with Graeme McDow­ell’s win in the 2010 U. S. Open, first- time cham­pi­ons were crowned at nine con­sec­u­tive ma­jors un­til Ernie Els brought the up­ward mo­bil­ity to a halt with his sec­ond Claret Jug, and fourth ma­jor ti­tle, in the 2012 Bri­tish Open.

Like ev­ery­thing in life, golf goes in cy­cles. Whether it was Arnie, Jack or Tiger, watch­ing some­one dom­i­nate golf is fun. But the cur­rent free- for- all is pretty good en­ter­tain­ment, too. As the re­volv­ing door at the ma­jors con­tin­ues to spin, you never know who’s go­ing to emerge.

MICHAEL MADRID, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Brooks Koepka, who has one top- 10 fin­ish in 2017, had five birdies and one bo­gey in Satur­day’s third round in the U. S. Open. He shot 68 and was one stroke out of the lead.

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