November 25, 2007

Newsmakers 2007: Major Breakthroughs

Tiger Woods' skipping the PGA Grand Slam this year meant the field had no carryover major winners from 2006--but Zach Johnson was not complaining. "In the Tiger Era, if you get the opportunity, you better take it," said the Masters champion. Of the main U.S. men's, women's and senior tours' combined 13 major championships, 10 went to golfers who had not won a major before--an extraordinary number considering the recent dominance of Woods and, until 2007, Annika Sorenstam. Woods (PGA Championship), Tom Watson (Senior British) and Loren Roberts (Senior Players) were the only exceptions. At No. 56 in the world, Johnson was the lowest-ranked Masters champion since the World Ranking's inception in 1986. This wasn't Jack Fleck coming out of Iowa to beat Ben Hogan; it was the pride of Cedar Rapids taking advantage of fast conditions and delivering a precise wedge game and fearless late-Sunday-afternoon putting. "Winning on the Hooters Tour, the Nationwide Tour and the PGA Tour prepared me for that moment--plus, nobody expects you to win," said Johnson.

Few expected 18-year-old Morgan Pressel, four shots behind going into the final round, to claim the Kraft Nabisco title and become the youngest winner of an LPGA major. And nobody expected Brad Bryant to be the beneficiary of Tom Watson's meltdown at Whistling Straits in the U.S. Senior Open--or that Denis Watson would shoot a Sunday 68 at Kiawah Island to win the Senior PGA. Lorena Ochoa was a different story. Her triumph at the Ricoh Women's British Open at St. Andrews seemingly was predestined--a good thing happening to a great golfer over a historic venue. She was no Hilary Lunke or Birdie Kim, nor was Angel Cabrera a reincarnation of Shaun Micheel or Todd Hamilton when he overpowered Oakmont for the U.S. Open title. The Argentine had won 15 tournaments around the world and contended many times in major championships. Ditto Padraig Harrington, who was 10th in the world when he won the British Open at Carnoustie. Conversely, Suzann Pettersen proved a quick study: She used an untidy final-round 74 at the Kraft as motivation for her McDonald's LPGA victory (one of her five wins). Cristie Kerr required battle-testing over a longer period than Pettersen, but the result was the same: She notched a major, hers at Pine Needles in the U.S. Women's Open. Finally, there was Mark McNulty, who, like Dr. Dirt, had won on the Champions Tour before picking off a major (Jeld-Wen Tradition). A fitting end to a season of major breakthroughs.