Next first-time major winner
Each of the last seven major championships have been won by first-timers. Who is poised to extend that streak at Royal Birkdale?
At this point two years ago, a discussion surrounding the best player without a major could have revolved around a number of highly-qualified candidates. But heading into the 146th Open, the theme has shifted considerably.
As in, last one to leave please turn out the lights.
Dating back to Jason Day’s win at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, seven major titles have been handed out to seven different first-time winners. It’s a stretch that continued last month when Brooks Koepka outlasted the field at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Seven in a row is a noteworthy stretch, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Golf experienced a run of nine straight first-time winners from 2010-12. But that earlier stretch included a few unexpected triumphs, notably Keegan Bradley’s win in his first-ever major start at the 2011 PGA.
This recent run has been a streak of thoroughbreds, one after another claiming a major trophy that was in many cases overdue. Six of the seven, excluding Jimmy Walker and including Koepka, were ranked 22nd or higher the week of their major win. Three – Day, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson – were already inside the top 10 without a major.
“We’re not seeing unknown names break through and just walk away with a major championship,” Justin Rose said at Erin Hills. “These are guys that have worked hard. They’re at the top end of their game.”
So with the current trend in mind, here’s a look at a few candidates who could potentially extend the streak of first-time winners to eight in a row at Royal Birkdale:
At age 28, Fowler arguably bears the burden currently of best player currently without a major. His run of four straight top-5 finishes in the 2014 majors, highlighted by runner-up results at Pinehurst and Valhalla, showcased his ceiling. But after two solid years, he’s back to performing at that level again – if not better.
Fowler sparked his season with a win at the Honda Classic in February, the second in a run of six straight top-16 finishes worldwide. He contended all week at Erin Hills after taking the opening-round lead and ultimately tied for fifth.
Fowler’s game is well-rounded, as he averages nearly 300 yards off the tee while ranking inside the top 10 on the PGA Tour in putting. A maiden major seems a matter of when, not if.
Matsuyama is the highest-ranked player without a major, having vaulted to No. 2 in the world following his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open.
The 25-year-old Japanese phenom was the hottest player in the world to close out 2016, racking up four wins and two runner-ups in a six-tournament stretch that included a seven-shot romp at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
While he cooled somewhat in the months that followed, Matsuyama closed with a 66 at Erin Hills to notch his sixth career top-10 finish in 18 major starts as a pro.
The Spaniard showed at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open that his rapid ascent through the world rankings shows no sign of stopping.
Rahm's six-shot romp at Portstewart was his second worldwide victory this year, coupled with runner-up finishes at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Dean & DeLuca Invitational. Barely a year removed from amateur status, he's now among the OWGR top 10 and a force to be reckoned with at any major.
The 22-year-old still has room for growth, as evidenced by his early exit from Erin Hills replete with club tosses and mini-outbursts. But when the waters are calm and the game is clicking, as it was in his last start, he's clearly among the world's best - with or without a major.
Thomas is in the midst of a career year, having racked up four PGA Tour wins before his 25th birthday. Three of those titles came this season, including a clinic at the Sony Open when he opened with 59 and set new Tour marks for 36- and 72-hole scoring.
Thomas also etched his name in the record books with a 63 at last month’s U.S. Open that was the lowest score in relation to par in tournament history and earned him a spot in Sunday’s final pairing. While he faded to a T-9 finish, his third round reminded fans what he can do against an elite field on a demanding course.
Thomas has now made the cut in seven straight majors, with top-40 finishes on four of those occasions. Don’t be surprised if his name appears on the yellow leaderboard behind the 18th green by Sunday.
Casey doesn't have youth on his side quite the other three on this list, but neither did Sergio Garcia when he finally broke through at the Masters in April. Casey has flourished since deciding to focus solely on the PGA Tour in 2015, and he has been a fixture in the OWGR top 20 for nearly a year.
Casey will turn 40 during the second round at Royal Birkdale, but there’s reason to think he could make it a week to remember after a recent T-6 at the Travelers Championship.
The Englishman was also sixth at Augusta this year and T-10 at last year's PGA Championship, and he is among the select group in this year’s field who also played Birkdale back in 2008 – when he tied for seventh.