None in the crowd of roughly 10,000 suspected that when Bobby Locke of South Africa tapped in for a two-shot victory and a record score in the British Open, he would be the last player from outside the United States to hoist the claret jug at Royal Troon.
That was in 1950.
Since then, there have been six Opens on the Ayrshire links in Scotland, and six American winners.
It was to Phil Mickelson, who cupped his hand under his chin and stared in deep thought as he went down the list of champions at Royal Troon — Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard and Todd Hamilton. The list complete, Mickelson came to a predictable conclusion.
“I would be shocked if anyone other than an American won this year,” Lefty said with a laugh. “There’s something to those trends.”
Really, it’s nothing more than a coincidence. The club motto at Royal Troon translates to “as much by skill as by strength,” which goes against the American style of power golf that is all about hitting it high and far and firing at flags.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more Americanized. Birkdale has probably a little of that,” Jim Furyk said. “We had a hell of a run there starting in the mid-90s (10 victories by Americans in 12 years). I think it’s just one of those things that happens.”
Odds are it can happen again.
Royal Troon has received enough rain this spring — with more in the forecast during the Open — that it likely will play substantially softer, meaning more targets and less bounces that define the subtlety of links golf.
As for the players?
Dustin Johnson and a dozen other Americans are among the top 25 in the world. The attention has shifted away from Jordan Spieth, who a year ago came within one shot of a playoff in his quest for the Grand Slam, to the 32-year-old Johnson, who is just now starting to deliver on his awesome potential.
Johnson broke through for his first major after four close calls, beating Oakmont and the USGA to win the U.S. Open by three shots. After a week off to celebrate, he chased down world No. 1 Jason Day on the back nine at Firestone to win a World Golf Championship. Johnson was the 36-hole leader at St. Andrews a year ago. He contended in the final round at Royal St. George’s in 2011 until a 2-iron that sailed out-of-bounds. He can handle links golf.
This will be his first time seeing Royal Troon, and he was intrigued about the gentle start — three par 4s under 400 yards — and the tough finish.
Troon is a tale of two nines. The wind is helping on the shorter outward nine holes. This is where players score, and it prompted Colin Montgomerie to say that “if you’re not under par after nine holes at Troon, you may as well go to the clubhouse at Prestwick and have lunch.” Prestwick, the first home of the British Open, is next to Troon.
The inward nine turns back into the wind and is relentless with tight fairways and prickly gorse bushes.
“Probably the toughest finishing stretch,” Paul Casey of England said. “Carnoustie is tough, I think Troon is a better set of finishing holes.”
Such is the stage for the 145th Open Championship, where the list of favorites keeps getting longer.
Spieth started the year at No. 1, has won twice and nearly won the Masters, and already is down to No. 3. Day remains No. 1 after the PGA champion added The Players Championship, a World Golf Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to his trophy collection.
Of those 13 Americans in the top 25, seven have yet to win a major, which has a small piece historical relevance at Troon. Four of the last Open champions had never won a major until their names were on the claret jug (and they never won another).
Branden Grace of South Africa was stunned to learn it had been 66 years since someone outside the United States had won the claret jug at Royal Troon.
“Not to be funny, but hopefully an international player can win it this year,” he said.
Then he was told the last Royal Troon champion was a fellow South African.
“Now there’s some motivation,” Grace said. “Might have to do some history searching myself.”
Here’s one clue: Locke was a great putter.
That’s what had been holding back Johnson, a good putter who just had not seen many disappear into the cup until recently. That’s what makes Spieth and Day so dangerous. And that could decide the fortunes of Rory McIlroy, who won the claret jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014 and missed out on his title defense at St. Andrews after injuring his ankle playing soccer.
But it starts with Johnson, who will try to become only the seventh player in the last century to the U.S. Open and British Open in the same summer.
“I’ve thought for a couple years … that’s he’s the most talented player there is in golf,” former Open champion David Duval said. “He has that weapon that is just basically unbeatable — driving the golf ball — and as he’s improved his wedges … that almost becomes unbeatable.”
And at Royal Troon, it doesn’t hurt that he’s an American.
“I think there’s a good chance,” Casey said, “that American streak continues.”