“The best golfer never to win a Major” – is it a case of being damned with “faint praise?”
For a start, merely to qualify for a mention in that conversation means we’re talking about players who are rich, famous, proven tournament winners and who clearly have the potential to lift one of golf’s four elite titles. On the downside, the public perception, harsh though it may be, tends towards the negative for those who get within spitting distance of a Major breakthrough and are found wanting, either in technique, decision-making or getting a bad break at the wrong time.
The dreaded “choker” label gets pinned onto a guy’s reputation when he comes up just short a little too often in Majors. Add in the pre-Major interviews for the top players who have yet to join the elite list of champions, and the unavoidable questions along the lines of:
“Can this be your year?”; “Do you believe you can win a Major?” “If your career ended without a Major, could you accept that?”
The answers, of course, have to come with an earnest portrayal of conviction and confidence – (a) “Well, if I get off to a good start and hit a bunch of fairways and hit a lot of greens, and hole a bunch of putts for four days there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen this week”;
(b) “Yes, I do believe, I’ll never stop believing”; and (c) – in suitably humble tones and with solemn countenance – “I’m privileged to play golf for a living, I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences it has given me and my family. I’ve had a pretty good career, so yes, if it didn’t happen for me in the Majors, I’d take that.”
Fair enough. What more can you say other than the truthful answer which would be more along the lines of “Leave me alone, you media bastards, I’ve been trying my butt off to win one of these things, and it hasn’t happened for me.
“Yeah, I care. I care a whole lot and I’ve shed tears too often about missing out on Majors, but you know what? I’m past caring. It’s never going to happen. You know it, I know it, so why, why, why, do you guys keep asking me the same questions four times a year, every year…”
Of course, no golfer is going to stray from the party line and reveal a chunk of stored-up anguish about near misses and “if onlys” in such brutally honest fashion. And there the matter rests until hope flickers again that maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance to escape from the ranks of Major virgins.
Well, in a few weeks’ time, the roundabout takes another twirl with the eagerly-awaited Masters at beautiful Augusta National. So who are the men likely to face a grilling about their prospects of breaking into the ranks of Major Champions this year?
A glance at the World Golf Rankings top-20 as per the last week of January early in 2010 and 2015 shows how potential can turn into achievement which should offer hope for Major wannabees of 2020.
Back in 2010, the non-Major champions in the top-20 for week ending January 31 were: Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Kenny Perry, Sergio Garcia, Robert Allenby, Sean O’Hair and Robert Karlsson.
Kaymer managed to break his duck later that year by winning the US PGA title.
Fast forward five years and on January 25, 2015, the Top-20 included 13 men who were still waiting for a Major victory: Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker, Billy Horschel, Robert Allenby, Patrick Reed, Victor Dubuisson, Hideki Matsuyama and Chris Kirk.
Spieth turned out to be the sensation of the year by claiming a Masters/US Open double in April and June, and Day broke the mould by taking the Wannamaker Trophy home for his US PGA success at Whistling Straits in August, 2015. Stenson annexed The Open title in 2016, and Walker came good in the 2016 US PGA. Wonder of wonders, Sergio finally got the Major monkey off his back at The Masters in 2017. Reed became the 2018 Masters Champion.
All of which illustrates the need to keep trusting, keep battling and, for some at least, the breakthrough happens, and they join the golfing immortals.
Still on the outsiders list from the 2015 group mentioned above are Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler, and it’s not for the want of trying by the two American Ryder Cup players.
Kuchar came close at Royal Birkdale in 2017 when he finished second to Jordan Spieth, while Fowler was twice pipped by Rory McIlroy in the 2014 Open Championship and US PGA. Fowler also came agonisingly close at the 2018 Masters in which he finished just a shot adrift of Green Jacket winner Patrick Reed. Aged just 31, Fowler has every reason for optimism about his chances this year, so we can let him off the dreaded “Never” list – at least for a year or two!
And so, to 2020, and the Top-20 as of January 26.
On that date, eight players were on the outside looking in as regards a place in the pantheon of Major winners – Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, Paul Casey and Marc Leishman.
All bar Casey (42), the 2013 Irish Open champion, are relatively young and Rahm, Cantlay, Schauffele, Fleetwood, Finau, DeChambeau and Leishman would quietly fancy their chances if presented with an opportunity on the back nine of a Major Sunday in 2020.
Fleetwood will have learned a lot from his experience of trying to take down Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush last year. The question is whether he can push on and close out a title should he find himself in the mix at The Masters, US PGA, the US Open or The Open in the coming months. Casey has a moderate Major record, with the highlights being tied-4 in the 2016 Masters and tied-3 at the 2010 Open, so he is not really in the “Best Player Never To Win A Major” grouping for me.
One player definitely in that category for good or ill, is Lee Westwood, who was ranked 29th on January 26. Time is running out for the 46-year-old from Worksop in England, but his new fitness regime and the confidence gained from his impressive win in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship bodes well for the rest of the campaign.
Westwood has an abundance of experience at the business end of the top tournaments and to date has played in 82 Majors since his debut at The Open in 1995. He was tied for fourth in The Open at Royal Portrush last year, and in total he has 18 top-10 finishes in all Majors, including runner-up spots in the Masters (2016 and 2010), and The Open (2010).
Who knows? This might be his year. At least Westwood still has a shot at glory, unlike his former Ryder Cup teammate, Colin Montgomerie. Monty is the epitome of that class of player who performed so well for so long, but when it came to the biggest occasions, it never happened for him. He still holds the record for the most runner-up finishes in Majors, (5), among players who contended but never won any of the Big Four championships.
As long as there is breath in his body and he can wield a golf club, Lee Westwood will strive might and main to avoid Monty’s fate.