In golf’s Game of Thrones, winter is here.
Since Tiger Woods abdicated his crown after winning the last of his 14 majors in 2008, his would-be successors from all six inhabited continents have been battling to claim dominion on the major stages with no clear heir.
The British Open starts Thursday at Royal Birkdale, the same venue where Woods skipped in 2008 because of knee surgery a month after his remarkable victory in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. It proved to be the beginning of the end of Woods’ reign as the most dominant figure in golf. His extended injury hiatus has currently dropped him out of the top 1,000 in the world for the first time in his career.
In his place is a free-for-all of players trying to establish themselves as the world’s best. It has created the most volatile stretch of major champions in the game’s long history.
Waiting for anyone to seize golf’s version of the Iron Throne as the “next Tiger” has become a futile endeavor. The world’s No. 1 ranking has changed hands 12 times since Woods last relinquished it in May 2014. Every time you think Rory McIlroy or Jason Day or Jordan Spieth or Dustin Johnson has it all figured out, they don’t .
“I doubt you’ll see a dominance like that maybe ever again in the game,” said Spieth, one of the most promising pretenders having matched Woods’ record of winning 10 PGA Tour events including a pair of majors before the age of 25. “Guys are learning, guys are getting stronger, athletes are going to golf, guys are winning younger and playing more fearless even in major championships. I just think it’s so difficult now. It was probably equally as difficult then – I can’t speak to that – but I wouldn’t get your hopes up for a domination like that whatsoever.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting time going forward of guys who are going to be battling against each other. You’ll see a group of 10 to 12 guys over the next 15 to 20 years who are going to have a lot of different competitions that come down the stretch with each other. It’s different than one person being the guy to beat, but I think it’s exciting for us as players.”
Since Jason Day won the 2015 PGA Championship, there have been seven consecutive first-time major winners heading into this week’s Open. It’s the second longest streak on golf history, behind the nine straight from Graeme McDowell at 2010 U.S. Open to Webb Simpson at the 2012 U.S. Open. If Phil Mickelson hadn’t beaten Lee Westwood in the 2010 Masters, that run would have extended 13 in a row going back to Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang in the last three majors of 2009.
In all, there have been 25 first-time winners in the 36 majors since Woods’ last – 69.4 percent rate. Mickelson (twice), Padraig Harrington (twice), Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson are the only “prime Tiger era” guys to add to their personal takes since.
That volatility in such a short span is unlike anything in golf history as other eras of dominance by a small handful of players have come and gone.
In the 46-major stretch from Woods’ first major win at the 1997 Masters to his last in 2008, there were only 20 new players to join the major-winning ranks. The longest streak of first-timers in the 12-year reign of Tiger was six, when Rich Beem at the 2002 PGA and Mickelson at the 2004 Masters book-ended the Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel sweep of 2003. It just so happened to coincide with Woods’ swing change transition from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney.
In the 11-year stretch between Jack Nicklaus’ last hurrah at the 1986 Masters and the dawn of Tiger in 1997, there were 25 break-through major winners including nine who would win multiple times like Nick Faldo (6), Ernie Els (4), Nick Price (3), Payne Stewart (3), Norman, Strange, Olazabal, Daly and Janzen. The longest streak of first timers was five from Norman (1986 British) to Faldo (1987 British).
There were only 23 first-time major winners from 1970-85 that included the rise of Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Hale Irwin and Johnny Miller. There was never a stretch of more than three majors without a familiar champion.
In the era when Palmer won his first major at the 1958 Masters through the 1960s, there were 27 break-through major winners including Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper and Raymond Floyd. The longest streak of first-timers was five.
In the post World War II era from 1946 until Palmer came along, there were 22 first-time winners including Ben Hogan, Bobby Locke and Peter Thomson. Four was the longest maiden streak.
From the start of the Masters in 1934 until WWII canceled all the majors in 1943, there were 18 breakthroughs including Byron Nelson and Sam Snead and never more than three first-timers in a row. From 1920-33 in the era of Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, there were 15 first-timers including Gene Sarazen and Tommy Armour and never more than three in a row.
While it’s hardly a relative comparison in golf’s early days from the inaugural Open in 1860 through World War I when the U.S. and British Opens were the only two “majors,” the longest streak of first timers was six from John Ball Jr. at the 1890 British through Horace Rawlins in the inaugural U.S. Open in 1895.
So this run is not the norm, and it’s arguably mostly Woods’ doing. Not only did he leave behind a power vacuum, it was his example that produced ensuing generations of fearless young athletes around the world to pursue golf over other sports and feed a growing pipeline of stars with major potential.
It would be no surprise to anyone if Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas or any of a dozen other ascending players lifted the claret jug this week and extended the streak.
Unlike the HBO hit, golf’s Game of Thrones isn’t close to reaching its finale.