On Sunday afternoon, 42-year-old Darren Clarke won the British Open at England's Royal St. George's. Clarke collected the first Major championship of his career in his 20th try at the Open, the most Open appearances by a first time winner. One of the world's top golfers a decade ago, the likable Clarke had slipped out of the top-100 in the world rankings before his title.
Clarke's championship continued a recent trend of unlikely winners at the British Open, a streak that makes the tournament the most democratic of all four majors—and the most enjoyable to follow because of the yearly unpredictability.
In the last 13 Opens, we've seen many players win Open titles that had either never won a major, fallen out of the elite, or weren't even known to the average golf fan.
Even the two top golfers of the last 10 years, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, have struggled at the British Open. Woods has won three British Opens, tied with the U.S. Open for his fewest wins at the four Majors. Mickelson, with four Major titles (3 Masters and 1 PGA) and five runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, had one top-10 finish at the British Open before he finished second last weekend.
Instead, the Open often gives us champions like Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen (2010), Stewart Cink (2009), Todd Hamilton (2004), Ben Curtis (2003) and Paul Lawrie (1999).
The Masters is generally reserved for the top players, including Woods (three titles since 1999), Mickelson (three titles) and top-flight players like Jose Maria Olazabal, Angel Cabrera, Mike Weir and Zach Johnson.
The U.S. Open has had 10 different winners in the last 13 years, but Woods, Payne Stewart, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk, Cabrera and Rory McIlroy, all top-10 players, have won crowns. Only the PGA Championship, with unknown winners like Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel, can come close to matching the British Open.
The reasons are plentiful for the different Open champions, including the British wind and weather than can raise or lower scores in a heartbeat, the massive and deep pot bunkers that dot links courses and can quickly lead to a high score, the tight fairways and heavy heather than penalize errant drives, and the shorter course lengths.
Royal St. George's measured only 7,211 yards, shorter than Augusta National (7,435 yards) and Congressional, site of this year's U.S. Open (7,574). The shorter venues have allowed all players—not just the longer hitting players on tour—to possibly win the British Open.
In '99, Lawrie, unknown to most of the golfing world, came from 10 back in the final round to force a playoff with Jean Van de Velde and Justin Leonard.
Van de Velde, of course, famously lost the Open with a triple bogey on the 72nd hole when he hit into the water, rough and bunker. In 2003, Curtis, then ranked 396th in the world, became the first debut champion in a major since Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open in 1913. Curtis was helped by Thomas Bjorn, who had trouble with bunkers and blew a three-stroke lead on final four holes.
The next year, little-known Todd Hamilton, a top player on the Japanese tour, bested Ernie Els in a playoff. Hamilton has made the cut at the Open championship twice since.
In 2007, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington, like Van de Velde, had trouble on Carnoustie's treacherous 18th hole. Harrington made double bogey, while Garcia later made bogey to force a playoff. Harrington eventually won.
In 2008, Greg Norman was in the lead until Sunday when he fell to Harrington. In 2009, 59-year-old golfing great Tom Watson nearly became the oldest winner of any major championship, but he lost to Stewart Cink in a four-hole British Open playoff.
Last year, Oosthuizen, a South African, stunned the field at St. Andrews when he won by seven shots. Oosthuizen had never previously made a cut at the Open. This summer, the top name on Royal St. George's scoreboard was Clarke's, previously most famous for besting Woods in a World Match Play championship in 2000. And in another British Open rarity, Clarke became first player since Mark O'Meara in '98 to win his first major after the age of 40.