Kragthorpe: Here’s hoping for a British Open free-for-all
Golf • Having a variety of champions is good for other sports — and the same is true of golf.

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

Published: July 19, 2012 10:23AM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:32PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Over the past 15 seasons, 11 hockey teams have hoisted the Stanley Cup. During that period, nine teams each have won the Super Bowl and the World Series and seven teams have claimed NBA championships.

In the last 15 major golf tournaments — seasons unto themselves, in a sense — 15 players have won titles.

Some would say golf’s parity has become a parody, that the disappearance of the Tiger Woods we once knew has changed the game for the worse and that this latest generation of champions lacks the motivation and ability to win multiple majors.

Personally, I love it.

As Bubba Watson, the Masters champion, said in advance of this week’s British Open, “You can’t guess who’s going to win every time. … There’s more and more talent out there.”

So they’ll all tee off Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England, fighting the wind, rain and Tiger in hopes of claiming the Claret Jug. The tournament certainly could produce a 16th different winner in this stretch — Woods actually would qualify for that list. Someone also could become the 10th consecutive first-time winner of a major.

That’s the more amazing number to me. Padraig Harrington observed in a news conference this week that there once was an “apprenticeship” young players served, a sense that they needed to contend a few times in majors before breaking through. That’s no longer true. They’re already willing and able to win when they get the chance.

That’s how Keegan Bradley could go from playing in the Web.com Tour’s Utah Championship at Willow Creek Country Club in 2010 to winning the PGA Championship last August.

In a recent interview at Red Ledges Golf Club in Heber City, where he conducts one of his golf schools, teacher Jim McLean marveled how his student could win a major as a PGA Tour rookie. “It’s one thing to be good enough to do that, but to be in the mix and be able to relax and hit those shots and then do it in the playoff … is exceptional,” McLean said. “That’s something you can’t teach.”

And that mental toughness and ability to perform under pressure, as Webb Simpson showed in winning last month’s U.S. Open, makes for compelling stories. It helps that Woods is targeting Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles in a quest that provides a backdrop for each of these tournaments. But does Tiger have to win to make golf interesting? Absolutely not.

This trend also endorses Tiger’s remarkable run of 14 majors in 12 seasons. As Harrington said of the current run of varied winners, “Even though everybody thinks that’s unusual, what is unusual is that Tiger won 14 during that period of time and people started to think you could dominate.”

So since Woods’ U.S. Open victory in 2008 that preceded Harrington’s wins in the British Open and the PGA Championship in the next two months, nobody has won more than one major. An element of becoming distracted or overly satisfied with the breakthrough comes into play here, but the bigger issue is that these things are tough to win, and even tougher to do again.

That’s why Tiger’s No. 2 ranking on the all-time list of major titles is untouchable. No golfer will come close to his 14 victories. He’s not going to catch Nicklaus, either, which is completely his fault. He inspired a generation of golfers to win majors like he did, then he opened the door for them and they’ve charged through it.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

British Open

P Thursday, 2:30 a.m.

TV • ESPN