As history tells us, the Olympic Club hardly needs a nudge to deliver an unexpected U.S. Open champion. But Tiger Woods' recent resurgence notwithstanding, that prospect may be more likely than ever in 2012.
During Woods' four-year career downturn since his dramatic 2008 Open victory at Torrey Pines, no golfer has separated himself from the pack as a consistently dominant player, particularly in the major tournaments.
In the past 14 majors, there have been 14 different winners, and none has been named Tiger. That's one short of the longest streak of 15 — established in 1998 when Lee Janzen won the Open at Olympic — since the Masters was added to the majors rotation in 1934 to form a Grand Slam.
Perhaps just as noteworthy is that the past seven winners have been first-timers, which is a record. And lest anyone think the well of good players seeking their first major is dry, the top-ranked player in the world, England's Luke Donald, hasn't won one.
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Nor has Lee Westwood, Hunter Mahan, Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Bill Haas or Sergio Garcia. That's 13 more players, all ranked in the top 25, still searching.
So what's happening here?
"I just think that the talent level is high; there are so many good players now," said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, the last back-to-back U.S. Open winner in 1988-89. "If you're not a true, true superstar like Tiger Woods, I don't think you're going to see anybody dominate."
At the apex of his career, Woods won seven of his 14 majors in just 11 starts. He won six from 2005 to 2008 in 14 starts. That kind of crazy dominance seems impossible in today's competitive climate, perhaps because Woods operated in such rare air.
"To dominate like Tiger did, that's in a class of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Pele and the true greats of all time," Strange said.
"The reality is without Tiger in the mix, it's opened up opportunities for other guys to get in there and get themselves a major championship," Paul Azinger said. "It's a return, really, to when Curtis and I were playing (in the late 1980s/early 1990s). It was deemed there were no real dominant players. As much as Greg Norman stayed on top of the world rankings, there were several patches where there was a different winner at every major."
Without question, the current run of parity has been heightened by the explosion of top international players. During the record run of 15 different winners in the late '90s, 11 were Americans. During this stretch of 14 different champions, nine have been from outside this continent. And they're not just from Europe. Two winners were from Africa, another from South America, another from Asia.
Longtime NBC analyst Johnny Miller said he thinks a few potentially great players simply haven't grabbed the brass ring for one reason or another during Woods' competitive dip. He cited Westwood as an example.
"Some guys just can't handle major championship pressure," said Miller, a two-time major winner. "Westwood can handle it well enough to have a chance to be in contention but not enough to hit that heroic shot on the last hole and do whatever he needs to do. He's had many chances. And so that opens the door for a lot of other people that were maybe surprised that they won."
Strange and Miller conceded that the wealth of outstanding players may preclude there being another Woods or Nicklaus but that it's inevitable for someone to rise out of the pack.
"Let's give McIlroy some time to develop, mature a little bit, and he could very well dominate," Strange said.
Miller isn't so sure.
"What you don't see is that fire to sort of determine who he is and his self-worth by championships," he said. "You know, I was never that way. To me, it was like, yeah, I'd like to win an Open. But I was also enjoying my family and life, where some of these guys, self-worth was about how many championships they won."
"Even with Jack Nicklaus, going out fishing with him, he told me, 'You know, I could have won more majors if I really focused a little more,'" Miller continued. "I was like, 'Dang, Jack, you won 18, how many do you want?' I didn't ever think that way. And I think Rory is a lot like I am. He's just happy being as good as he is."
Miller sees today's golfers as hard workers but not necessarily driven players who make winning an obsessive quest, a stark change from his era when not only Nicklaus but also players such as Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin and Lee Trevino might be tempted to kick you in the shins if it meant a major win.
"The guys from that era in the '70s were tough, mean guys," he said. "I see the guys nowadays being a lot nicer, family men. It's not like their whole life is on the line."
They also make a far more comfortable living today — even without winning majors. The average tournament victory nets the winner more than $1 million.
That said, Miller said he thinks someone will rise from the bouillabaisse of talented players and set the tone. Heck, the way he's playing of late, it could be Tiger again.
"There's always room for a dominant player," Miller said. "It's that just dominant players don't fall off trees."