History says the winner is... anyone

One reading of the records says Woods, another Langer, yet another Duval. Peter Corrigan searches for a pattern
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The Independent Online

The Open is going through a unique period in its long and momentous history. Since Greg Norman won his second Open at Sandwich in 1993, each subsequent year has seen a first-time winner.

From Nick Price at Turnberry in 1994 through John Daly (St Andrews, '95), Tom Lehman (Royal Lytham, '96), Justin Leonard (Royal Troon. '97), Mark O'Meara (Royal Birkdale, '98), Paul Lawrie (Carnoustie, '99) to Tiger Woods at St Andrews last year each has been a virgin, claret jug-wise.

In no other stretch of seven years since The Open began in 1860 has a previous winner failed to reappear to win the event for a second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth time.

Knowing the potency of omens on the sacred eve of another Open dawning, this statistic will light the sky for various interested parties.

We need hardly point out that the obvious man to bring to an end this historical procession of one-time-wonders is Woods whose eight-stroke winning margin last year was the highest for 87 years and who is unquestionably the finest golfer plying his trade in these times.

But he has not had matters his own way in recent weeks and there are others who may feel comforted that the odds favour a player who has won before; not least among them are those, like Woods, who registered their one and only victory in the last seven years.

Prominent among those is Lehman, stylish winner at Royal Lytham five years ago and capable of repeating the feat on a course he adores. However, another fact is not encouraging in Lehman's case.

The quiet and quake-proof American, who was 36 when he won this event, is now 42 and fate hasn't favoured the over-forties. The oldest man to win the tournament was Old Tom Morris who was 46 when he won at Prestwick in 1867. It was 100 years before a man of similar age was successful. Roberto de Vicenzo was 44 when he triumphed at Hoylake in 1967. Only once since has a player broken that barrier; Mark O'Meara was 41 when he took the title at Royal Birkdale three years ago.

Some of his contemporaries may feel that O'Meara has blazed a trail which they can follow. After all, we are all supposed to be staying younger longer. Nick Price could still be a force at 44 and of other previous winners of that age Nick Faldo's resurgence rules him into contention. It is 14 years since Faldo won the first of his three Opens but there were 19 years between the first and last of J H Taylor's five victories and, more recently, 15 between Gary Player's first and third.

Faldo has a good record at Lytham to spur him; he was fourth in 1996 and third in 1988, so the occasion of his 44th birthday on Wednesday might not weigh too heavily. It is not easy to be as confident about Greg Norman's chances. At 46 he is now concentrating on his business interests and this appears to be little more than a corporate outing.

The trend of first-time winners will be particularly heartening to those whose last chances are imminent. Bernhard Langer, fast approaching his 44th birthday, has been showing exceptional form in America with four top-six finishes. Ian Woosnam has been looking lively at 43, while Fred Couples is still a threat at 41.

The fact they will all have to live with is that two-thirds of the winners since 1970 have been in their thirties and most of those have been in the lower thirties. The presence of Tiger Woods at 25 and Sergio Garcia at 21 may render even this age group less than fertile, but it contains players who are difficult to overlook.

Ernie Els and his bad back are 31 as is Phil Mickelson. Retief Goosen and Darren Clarke are both 32, while Padraig Harrington and David Duval are in their 30th year.

It all comes down to which way you think history is going to jump. Will it revert to the pattern that has given us multiple winners regularly down the years like Old Tom Morris, his son, Taylor, Harry Vardon, James Braid, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson? If so then Woods and Lehman will lead the fancies.

If the oldies are to lead the battle to put new names on the trophy, Langer and Couples are likely to be at their head. If the young thirties are to assert themselves, Goosen and Duval would seem the choice.

If the winner is not among that lot then hours spent poring over the record books have been a complete waste of time and we'll go back to instinct.

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