July 9, 2007

'07 and major surprises

View From the Bunker

Among the few things that rival Dan Jenkins' appreciation of fellow Texan Ben Hogan are his love of college football--and his way with words. So it was of little surprise that Jenkins, when once asked to identify which year produced the best major-championship winners, offered: "1953. Hogan, Hogan, Hogan and Burkemo."

Which raises this question: Will 2007 go down as one of the years producing the most surprising class of major champs?

So far, the guys with the hardware on their mantels are Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera, not exactly favorites going into the Masters and the U.S. Open respectively. This season, then, is midway toward matching 2003 as the only year since 1969 in which all four winners got their first major championship. And that means we would be less than responsible if we didn't try to identify the Walter Burkemo (above) waiting for us at Carnoustie.

The last time the British Open was played at Carnoustie it delivered Paul Lawrie, the sore thumb sticking out among the multiple-major winners in 1999 of José Maria Olazábal, Payne Stewart and Tiger Woods. Fact is, there are a bunch of guys shooting for their first major who could well get it at Carnoustie and none would be as surprising as Lawrie--or Burkemo.

The First-Time Slam in 2003 was pulled off by Mike Weir (Masters), Jim Furyk (U.S. Open), Ben Curtis (British Open) and Shaun Micheel (PGA Championship), none of whom has won a major since. Of the four first-timers from 1969--George Archer, Orville Moody, Tony Jacklin and Raymond Floyd--Jacklin won the U.S. Open the next year and Floyd won three additional majors.

While Johnson and Cabrera were surprise winners, they weren't Lawrie-like. Although outside the top 25 in the World Ranking, they had established their ability to win. And, quite admirably, both held off Tiger Woods. There are a solid handful of players who could emerge at Carnoustie to get their first major--and it would not really be a surprise.

Consider five guys ranked just outside the World Ranking's top 25: (in order) Stuart Appleby, Aaron Baddeley, Robert Allenby, Brett Wetterich and Ian Poulter. All, except Appleby, have moved up in the rankings this year. And all are capable of winning a major.

It just seems like this is going to continue to be a year of surprises. Phil Mickelson still has lingering issues with his wrist. Woods is adjusting to parenthood, and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh don't really seem to be in the majors mix. Furyk, who was in it until the end at Oakmont, might be the highly ranked player who could get his hand on the claret jug.

Then there is the feel-good story: What if the guy getting his first major at Carnoustie was Colin Montgomerie? Pretty much everyone thought he squandered his last opportunity when he double-bogeyed the final hole at Winged Foot to give away the U.S. Open. But then he won the European Open last week to show that neither his skills nor his fire have been completely extinguished. Cranky old Monty would be the biggest surprise of all--and that's probably a story Dan Jenkins would love to write.