Matt Cooper revisits the best major championships of the last ten years, a decade which started with Phil Mickelson success, ended with Shane Lowry’s Open win, and had some Tiger Woods magic in between.
Before we start, a warning: prepare for disappointment because it is quite simply impossible to rate these tournaments without upsetting someone; inevitably one person’s favourite memory is another’s damp squib.
There is no Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner or Keegan Bradley in this list, but, perhaps more surprisingly, no Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson or two-time winner Bubba Watson either.
There is no slight intended toward these champions, the decisions are merely personal flights of fancy.
One arbitrary rule to note – no golfer appears more than once in the list so in each case his standout triumph is selected.
And now, without further ado, let the countdown begin-
To fully appreciate this triumph it is necessary to first spin back to the Open which preceded it, at Royal Lytham in 2012. There Scott led the field by four shots with four to play, but bogeyed all of them to hand victory to Ernie Els.
Now picture the scene: he’s just collapsed on the final stretch of a major he appeared to have won, the pain is indescribable, he’s immediately required to put it into words for television, and then do it again for radio and finally the press. He’s dealt with it all, he’s been open, honest and heartfelt. It’s almost over, he can go and sit alone in the locker room.
Except a voice, not unlike George Formby’s, requests a final question. The R&A official is unsure but Scott nods.
“Can I ask about your local connections?” the man says. “Were your parents originally from Freckleton? And did your grandmother have a house overlooking the course?”
To his eternal credit Scott laughed with everyone else at both the surreal nature of the enquiry and its appalling timing. Even more impressively he offered a patient response.
“My parents are from Australia,” he said. “And my grandmother was from Wales. It’s my dad’s cousins that are from Freckleton. And I believe my Aunt lived behind the ninth green once. That,” he politely concluded to laughter all round, including, wonderfully, his own, “is the best I’ve got for you.”
Good looking, good at golf and good manners, but can nice guys can finish first? Eight months later, the delightful answer was yes.
On the final day of any Open spectators follow their favourites and then drift towards the grandstands around the 18th green. On this Sunday, however, they hurried in the opposite direction, to join Tiger Woods who had grabbed the lead at the turn.
The great man was playing with Molinari and the contrast in playing conditions was vast that dusty afternoon. For Woods there was rapt silence and zero movement; for the Italian it was bedlam. On the 13th green Woods completed his par and the crowds surged towards the 14th tee, like rush hour commuters racing for the Tube at Waterloo, unaware that the woman trying to hold her place in their tidal swell, who peered beyond them and around a tree, was Molinari’s wife Valentina.
She tensed as she waited for her husband’s putt to drop and when it did she bent at the knee, fists and face clenched in celebration. It was just one moment among many on that back nine when Molinari defied his own course history, the field, the galleries and arguably the greatest golfer ever to secure the Claret Jug: not just his but also his nation’s first major championship victory.
In total, golfers from the United States won 21 of the 40 majors in this decade and the nation which came second was Northern Ireland with six. The man who kickstarted that tally? Graeme McDowell, whose victory was triggered in a most peculiar manner.
A month before he headed to Pebble Beach McDowell played the final round of the BMW PGA Championship alongside Simon Khan, both of them starting the day seven shots back of the lead. McDowell had the best seat in the house as Khan carded a brilliant 66 to win by one and yet, despite shooting 74 himself, the Portrush man was in a chipper mood when talking to the Irish press immediately afterwards.
Eyes narrowed, head tilted to one side, a click of the mouth, fingers tugging at one ear, McDowell said: “Great round by Simon, really special, but you know what? That could have been me.”
Seven days later he was fourth in Madrid, a week after that he won in Wales and in his next start he withstood the unlikely charge of Gregory Havret to claim success on the Californian coast.
There is something glorious about golf when the galleries hurtle giddily up, down and across the dunes, not following their hero, but being led by him. The electricity among the fans is never more thrilling than in such moments, an experience that is visceral and in complete contrast to the golfing norm of comically polite applause.
Lowry has now led his fans not once, but twice on such a journey. The first was in the 2009 Irish Open, when in filthy weather he claimed victory on the linksland. Ten years later there was a magical sense of deja vu: more filthy weather, another stretch of Irish linksland, another triumph. Royal Portrush rather resembled Cheltenham at times that week and it was wonderful.
💬 Shane Lowry after his Open Championship victory. pic.twitter.com/hoXZ2QdgdE
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) August 4, 2019
It’s a strange business, but the only golfer who has ever seen Brooks Koepka frightened is unheralded Scotsman George Murray, who shared a cab with the American in Nairobi on the 2013 Challenge Tour.
Koepka thought he was being abducted (by the driver, not Murray) and perhaps the memory has allowed him to put contending in major into perspective because, unlike most, he seems impervious to the heavy pressure of it.
He’s also revealed himself something of an arch troll of his fellow players, forever discussing the business of winning the big titles, and not really caring about the minor ones, with a half-heartedness that must sting those with twitchier nerve endings.
Sunday April 10th 2011 was an important day in the history of Augusta National Golf Club: the day Rory McIlroy inadvertently revealed the presence of log cabins in the woods to the left of the tenth tee.
His snap hook was disastrous because he had started the day with a four-shot lead chasing a first major triumph and he ended it carding an 80.
Many would have wilted, others sulked, the rest feared the consequences when next they led a major.
What did McIlroy do? He carded 65 in his next major lap, the first round of the U.S. Open in June, and immediately he led by three. A Friday 66 extended his advantage to six and weekend scores of 68-69 completed an eight-shot decimation of the field.
A week before heading to Muirfield Mickelson found himself faced with a difficult greenside recovery at Castle Stuart in the Scottish Open. As he opted to use a flop shot the commentary team’s response was typical when golf heads to the seaside.
First there was silence, then slow rebuke, finally sad condemnation: in choosing an aerial recovery rather than a bump-and-run the American was sinning against links tradition, we were being left in no doubt that this man was lacking any kind of moral fibre.
As it happens the ball landed stone dead, he tapped in for par, won that week and the degenerate flop-shotter made it two-in-two at Muirfield.
Typically golfers will spend a long time on the range ahead of the final round of a major.
At Royal Birkdale Spieth broke with tradition by spending hours there midway through his back nine.
His drive at the 13th hole found itself among the equipment trucks and by the time he’d decided what to do next the grandstands behind the 18th green were overdue for arrival at Carnoustie for the 2018 championship.
It was brilliantly chaotic and his bogey there seemed to have handed the initiative to playing partner and closest challenger Matt Kuchar – except that he promptly played the next four holes in 5-under-par to claim a third major championship title.
Nothing puts Henrik Stenson’s performance into perspective more than everything Phil Mickelson achieved in defeat.
He equalled the major championship 18-hole low score with a 63 in round one, he added a flawless 65 on Sunday, he defeated the field by 11 shots, he compiled the second-lowest aggregate in Open history.
And he watched someone else lift the Claret Jug.
We didn’t believe it possible.
We were wrong.
Tiger Woods’ journey at the Masters in a flip book 👏
— ESPN (@espn) April 21, 2019
Golf doesn’t escape coronavirus disruption.
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Spaniard looking ahead.
Englishman has high hopes.
Northumberland course recognised again.
Slieve Russell impressing again.