Open champ? Imagine the possibilities

BETHESDA, Md. -- He is 47 years old, 14 years removed from his one major championship victory, and he has missed the cut at the U.S. Open in two of his past four appearances. But Davis Love is not here just to take up a spot in the field. Why couldn't he win?

That certainly has to be the mindset of anyone playing in the 111th U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club. Major winners have come in all shapes and sizes of late, with age, experience and firepower being factors of less significance.

"Anyone can win," said Love, the 1997 PGA Championship winner who tied for sixth at Pebble Beach last year to earn a spot in his 22nd U.S. Open. "It's wide-open. Back when Greg Norman was the favorite, everybody looked to him. I don't know if you can pick a favorite for the U.S. Open now. You used to pick three or four guys."

You can do so now, and perhaps you'd get lucky and have the winner among that group. Maybe it will be No. 1 Luke Donald or No. 2 Lee Westwood, players who have yet to win a major.

But if this Open follows recent form, the champion who accepts the trophy on Sunday evening will be someone who has not won a major previously -- or at least not recently.

The major championships are now in a stretch that has seen 10 different winners dating to Padraig Harrington's PGA Championship victory at Oakland Hills in 2008.

Since then we've seen the likes of Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel.

Although Schwartzel is a fine player, few would have been able to pick him out of a lineup -- let alone all the players in contention on the back nine at Augusta National -- before he birdied the final four holes to win the Masters.

Of the past 10 winners, only Harrington, Cabrera and Mickelson had previously won a major.

"It's exciting, isn't it?" said Kaymer, who captured the PGA in a playoff in August over Bubba Watson and is the only player in that group of 10 to have gone to No. 1 in the world. "It's nice to have different champions. It's interesting for golf and the world. ... You can see the world rankings. It's changing every week; every month something is going on. So I find it very exciting."

Having Tiger Woods out of the mix is certainly one reason for the diversity of winners. In the 10 majors before Harrington's win at the PGA in '08, Woods had captured four of them, with Harrington two others and the remaining four going to Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson, Cabrera and Trevor Immelman.

"Certainly you've got to look at Tiger not being as dominant," said McDowell, who last year became the first European golfer since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the U.S. Open. "There was a while there where he was popping up once, twice a season. It was getting pretty tough to win major championships when he was playing the way he was. He's been a major factor, of course."

Woods' absence from the scene makes for a more wide-open feel. Because he is missing the U.S. Open thanks to injury, he will go a 12th consecutive major without winning, dating to his 2008 U.S .Open triumph. This is the longest stretch of his career without winning a major, but it is also the third in the past 12 he has missed because of injury.

But other factors are important.

"Just guys stepping up and believing they can do it," McDowell said. "There's no doubt that Padraig has given European golfers a belief that we can win major championships. I think the 21st-century golfer is a lot more ready for the tour; the younger players are so much more ready for the tour when they come out. The standard is so much better across the board, and technology has maybe leveled the playing field a bit as well.

"It's exciting that the fields are so wide-open these days. But the world rankings don't lie. The top players are the top players for a reason, because they do it on a regular basis."

Yet only three players in the top 10 -- Kaymer, Mickelson and McDowell -- have won major championships.

And for the first time since 1994, when Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters, Ernie Els won the U.S. Open and Nick Price captured both the British Open and PGA, no American holds any of the four major championships.

If an international player wins this week, it would be the first time since the Masters began in 1934 that five majors were played without an American winner.

"That's one thing with tournaments of this stature, there's many, many good golfers," Schwartzel said. "Every single guy I suppose has a chance to win."

Schwartzel might not have had that same belief if his longtime friend Oosthuizen had not won last summer's British Open at St. Andrews. They have been competing against each other going back to a junior tournament in South Africa, when Schwartzel was 10 and Oosthuizen 12.

They often travel together and discuss how fortunate they are to be major champions.

"I think a lot of guys fall into the trap of thinking it's too important," Schwartzel said. "If you make something too important, you can't perform to your ability that you normally would. One of the things that Jack Nicklaus said to me was that he actually found major championships sometimes easier to win than normal events, and that stuck to me, because a lot of guys make it very important, and they get more nervous than they would and they don't play their normal game."

Along with McDowell, Oosthuizen and Kaymer, Schwartzel finds himself among a foursome of players who might not have been expected to win the most recent major championships.

That is what gives a veteran such as Love -- and likely many others -- hope.

"Look at the last four major winners," he said. "That gives everyone confidence. It's not a secret club that you can't get in."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.