SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- It's a little early to call it a trend, sort of like when the first players started turning up at professional events a couple of years ago wearing white belts.
But eventually, the fashion-backward '70s look took hold. Even Tiger Woods wore a white belt last week. Maybe that was part of his problem.
|Y.E. Yang won a Sunday showdown with Tiger Woods in last year's PGA Championship to claim his first major. (Getty Images)|
If the en vogue victory march continues, for the sixth time in the past seven majors, somebody is going to win a Grand Slam title this weekend that the majority of casual golf fans couldn't distinguish from their local driving-range pro.
"You've got to start somewhere," Woods said.
Lately, players have been starting at the top.
Five of the past six Grand Slam events have been won by first-time major winners, which might sound like an odd anomaly. In fact, the arithmetic becomes more head-scratching over a slightly longer arc: Beginning with Zach Johnson's win at the Masters in 2007, nine of the past 15 major winners have been first-time major champions -- on golf's four biggest stages.
"With Tiger having his troubles right now," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said last weekend, "it opens up."
The winner's circle has become a veritable revolving door, and not all of it can be thrown at the spiked feet of Woods, who is looking at an 0-for-10 run at the majors if he can't win the PGA Championship this week at Whistling Straits.
Padraig Harrington claimed three major titles over 2007-08, but hasn't won anything in exactly two years. Vijay Singh, who has won three majors, including the PGA when it was last held at Whistling Straits in 2004, is struggling merely to remain relevant. The only player since last summer who had previously won a major is Phil Mickelson, who slipped into the green jacket in April.
When the big dogs stay on the porch, the puppies can romp. The last two major winners, Graeme McDowell and
The two easy answers are obvious. Woods won 14 majors starting in 1997, picking off more than one per year on average over his first full dozen seasons. With injuries, surgeries and marital maladies piling up, he hasn't been the same threat.
Meanwhile, the global talent pool is attacking like never before, which might be why the U.S. Coast Guard parked a ship off the shore at Whistling Straits six years ago. Maybe they knew some sort of golf invasion was coming. They should have brought reinforcements.
The change in mental outlook, based on strength in numbers and the absence of the typical Woods aura, is palpable. But don't take our word for it.
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"I think there is a slightly different feel," England's Paul Casey said. "I'll be honest, the feeling in the locker room is slightly different.
"Graeme McDowell played tremendous golf at the U.S. Open, so did Louis playing his golf at the Open Championship. That, combined with the way Tiger played last week, I think guys now feel that -- there are multiple winners, multiple possible winners this week.
"It's different, not a feeling we've had in a while."
Since 1997, to be precise, which is the last time Woods wasn't the top Vegas favorite to win during the week of a major championship.
It's no coincidence that Casey cited the emergence of McDowell and Oosthuizen. Their career-defining victories have imbued other top players with some sense of group hysteria, sort of like when players started shooting 59 and 60 a few weeks back.
"When Graeme won that sort of changed my mindset going into majors," Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy said. "I've played so many practice rounds with him, and to see him win gives you a lot of confidence in yourself."
Why not me?
"If G-Mac can do it, there's no reason I can't do it as well," said McIlroy, who is on the short list of favorites. "A lot of players are seeing that and thinking the same way. Majors are a lot more open than they were five or 10 years ago."
Well, the timeline might be arguable. Woods won three majors in 2000 and a pair in 2005. But the sentiment is solid, since the fear that once took root when Woods was near the lead isn't quite the same after the ailing world No. 1 blew the 54-hole lead at the PGA exactly 12 months ago, losing to one of the unknowns, Y.E. Yang.
Yang had one PGA Tour win when he knocked off Woods in an eye-to-eye Sunday showdown. In all, the five guys who claimed their first major championship titles since last summer had combined to win 13 titles on the PGA or European tours.
Where's the gagging gone?
"I think it's got to do with the fact that the game has become so much more aggressive now," McDowell said, taking a fresh tack. "Now guys go for everything. You know, 20 years ago, it was really the Faldos and guys like that. Faldo, when he was winning major championships, was a real plodder.
"[Power players] J.B. Holmes and Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods and guys who dominate golf courses -- I think that's a 21st century golfer who dominates a golf course. You see in the late '90s what Tiger did to Augusta is just unheard of. I think guys are so much more aggressive now. Like I say, they only know how to go forward and the scoring just gets better and better every year."
That means this could become a full-blown trend at any moment.
"The no-fear thing is in there," McDowell said. "I just don't think they are scared anymore."
Those walking at Whistling Straits had better look deep into the pairings sheet, because based on history, the outcome is close to assured and the household names might be the underdogs. The PGA Championship is where the less-heralded guys usually come out of the woodwork -- in 91 previous PGAs, 32 of the winners never won another major.
Thus, when the champion Sunday night hoists the Wanamaker Trophy overhead, salutations will surely be in order. For some, a proper introduction might be necessary, too.