15 ... and counting? Another major looks wide open

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LYTHAM ST. ANNES (AP) — Padraig Harrington. Angel Cabrera. Lucas Glover.

Golf's major championships used to be so easy to predict.

Stewart Cink. Y.E. Yang. Phil Mickelson.

Tiger Woods could be counted on to win most of them. Mickelson would grab one every now and then. Occasionally, some little-known player — say, Ben Curtis or Shaun Micheel — would slip in to steal one away.

Graeme McDowell. Louis Oosthuizen. Martin Kaymer.

Now, it feels like a total crapshoot, a blindfolded toss at a dart board.

Charl Schwartzel. Rory McIlroy. Darren Clarke.

Over the past 15 majors, there have been 15 different winners. Amazingly, the last nine are all first-time champions. Come Sunday, who'll be holding the claret jug, symbol of the British Open champion? Who knows?

Keegan Bradley. Bubba Watson. Webb Simpson.

"It goes to the depth of the game of golf on a worldwide stage as to how many great players are now winning and competing in major championships," Mickelson said Tuesday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

The era of diversity started after Harrington won his second straight major title — and third in a little over a year — at the 2008 PGA Championship. At that point, the big stage was producing little drama. Harrington was actually a breath of fresh air, breaking up Woods' monotonous hold on the major events.

At the end of '07, Woods won his 13th career major at the PGA. The following summer, he dramatically pulled out the U.S. Open on one good leg, beating Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff at Torrey Pines. All that was left to do was chase down Jack Nicklaus, who holds the gold standard with 18 major titles.

But things were about to change.

Big time.

Woods underwent season-ending knee surgery after Torrey Pines, opening up things for Harrington. But the real turning point came the following year, around Thanksgiving, when the world's best player was exposed as a serial philanderer. Woods' marriage fell apart and he dropped out of sight for five months, looking to salvage what was left of his reputation.

He didn't miss any majors, but when Woods returned at the 2010 Masters, he was no longer the same dominating player.

Turns out, nobody was.

"Tiger would admit that his form hasn't been as good over the last few years," said Luke Donald, who hopes to extend the streak to 16 different major winners. "He hasn't been as dominant in the majors as he was. And it probably also speaks to how good a player he was, that he was able to dominate. Even though there are some really great players around right now, no one has really come through and started to win consistently at the majors."

This is the second-longest streak of different major winners since the Masters was founded in 1934, going on to claim a spot as one of golf's premier events alongside the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

Three decades ago, there was a period with 18 different winners that began with Larry Nelson's triumph at the 1983 U.S. Open and ended when Nelson won again four years later at the PGA. Looking back, that was a time of momentous changes in the game: American greats Nicklaus and Tom Watson were beginning to fade away (each won their last major during this span), while a new wave of international greats (Seve Ballesteros in his prime; Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman winning the first of multiple majors) was taking over.

It's not yet known how this bunch will stack up.

Mickelson (four major titles) and Harrington (three) have secured their place in history. Angel Cabrera is a rather curious case, a highly regarded player who has won both the U.S. Open and the Masters, but not much else. Everyone else is a one-time major champion, legacies in progress with varying levels of potential to add another glossy line to their resumes.

They range from the 23-year-old McIlroy, a truly wondrous talent who seems certain to win three or four more before he's done, to the 43-year-old Clarke, who's given no indication of being able to duplicate last year's magical week at Royal St. George's.

Bubba Watson, who grabbed his first major at this year's Masters, points out there are plenty of promising players still on the horizon, everyone from American Rickie Fowler to Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, still in their early 20s with the game to break through at some point. Woods' dominance and popularity helped spawn a new generation, a precocious group that wasn't necessarily intimidated by the guy who always wears red on Sundays.

"You've got all these young guys learning," Watson said. "Tiger has made the game grow so much in every country, every part of the world. People are getting better, they're practicing more, they're training, they're working out, they're eating better, they're trying to get healthier, they're trying to get stronger at the game of golf."

While Woods' aura has faded a bit, he also believes there are significantly more players capable of beating him on any given week — including a week such as this — than there were when he was ripping off major titles with apparent ease.

"The fields are deeper, there's no doubt," Woods said. "More guys now have a chance to win major championships than ever before, and I think it will just continue to be that way."

A three-time winner already this year on the PGA Tour, Woods seems on the verge of getting back in the mix. But there's certainly the potential for another first-time champion to emerge. It could be Donald, the world's top-ranked player but never much of a threat in the majors. Or third-ranked Lee Westwood, who has more top-three majors finishes without winning (seven) than anyone in the modern era. In fact, six players in the top 10 have yet to win during these most special of weeks.

The streak might end at Lytham, but a diverse mix of champions is likely to carry on for a while.

"Guys are turning up, and if it's their week, they can win any week," Harrington said. "Even though everybody thinks that's unusual, what is unusual is that Tiger won 14 times during a period, and people started to think you could dominate. He did dominate, but it's probably not going to happen again."

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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