5.14pm Sunday – Phil Mickelson strolled down the final hole at Muirfield en-route to holing a birdie putt to win the 2013 Open Championship, his 5th major championship.
Mickelson, once known as the best player yet to win a major, walked off with his first Claret Jug as many high-profile players, without a major in their trophy case, sputtered.
Westwood, Mahan, Poulter, Jimenez, Day, Snedeker, Garcia, Dustin and Matt Kuchar were all in with a chance Sunday, but none were able to take the leap from good to great player-status by winning one of golf’s major championships.
Ranking the top players who have yet to win a major is a common debate around the golfing world. Colin Montgomerie is the most common winner (or loser, depending on how you look at it) of the “best-player-never-to-win-a-major” title.
With Adam Scott and Justin Rose finally winning their first majors this year, after a combined 85 major starts, the pressure on the remaining ‘major-less’ group has intensified. Interestingly, before Mickelson’s Open win on Sunday, 14 of the last 17 major championships had been won by first-time major champions:
2013 US Open: Justin Rose (37th attempt)
2013 Masters: Adam Scott (48th attempt)
2012 US Open: Webb Simpson (5th attempt)
2012 Masters: Bubba Watson (17th attempt)
2011 PGA: Keegan Bradley (1st attempt)
2011 Open: Darren Clarke (54th attempt)
2011 US Open: Rory McIlroy (11th attempt)
2011 Masters: Charl Schwartzel (17th attempt)
2010 PGA: Martin Kaymer (12th attempt)
2010 Open: Louis Oosthuizen (9th attempt)
2010 US Open: Graeme McDowell (19th attempt)
2009 PGA: YE Yang (8th attempt)
2009 Open: Stewart Cink (48th attempt)
2009 US Open: Lucas Glover (12th attempt)
So who is the best player without a major and how can you rank them?
For many, it is simply a feeling. Recalling nervous finishes or missed putts, or looking at regular Tour-success and asking why a player hasn’t broken through in a major.
To calculate this top-10, I used several metrics to create a ranking amongst the players who haven’t won a major:
Wins. Professional wins on any Tour. A show of talent and the ability to finish.
Major Starts. Experience at the four golf majors, amateur or professional.
54-Hole Leads. How many times has the player lead/co-lead after 3 rounds in a major.
Final Group. Number of times a player has felt the pressure of the final group in a major.
Runner-Up. How many times have they come up second best (or tied-second).
Top-10. Number of times they have finished in the top-10 of a major.
Top-25. Number of times they have finished in the top-25 of a major.
Missed Cut Percentage. How often do they miss the cut in a major.
Whether or not a “Runner-Up” finish should be valued more than simply starting a major, or whether a top-25 finish is as important as a lessor professional event win, is of course open to debate. I simply chose what I considered relevant and appropriate measures of performance and valued them equally to create a players score, based on their ranking across the 8 metrics.
Thus, my top-10 was created:
10) Hunter Mahan
Mahan was in the final group, for the second consecutive major, on Sunday. A poor final round of 75 saw him fall back into a tie for 9th. It was the sixth top-10 of his young career, and his second straight having finished 4th at the US Open earlier this summer.
Mahan generally has inconsistent form when it comes to the majors. Despite his recent final group appearances, he has missed the cut in 10 of the last 23 majors.
However, he has become one of the most consistent ball strikers on the PGA Tour, and does have two WGC Championships on his mantlepiece. I suspect he could win a major if he keeps putting himself in contention, but I question whether he has the ability/mental strength to win the big one on the back-nine Sunday.
Best Chance: 2013 US Open. 1 shot out of the lead, in the final group, Mahan was still tied for lead with four holes to play. Ultimately carded a 75 and finished T4th.
9) Jason Day
The simply fact that Jason Day even makes the list is impressive. The 25-year old has only played in 12 majors, yet has racked up four top-3 finishes.Whilst he finished a distant (8-shot) second to Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011, he was a total of 6 shots away from 3 other major titles (2013 US Open, 2011 and 2013 Masters).
His aggressive style of play has seen him make some memorable runs at majors, including the 2011 Masters and more recently finishing second behind Justin Rose at this year’s US Open.
He hasn’t yet proven himself to be a prolific winner of events, but there is no doubt Day seizes the day when it comes to the majors.
Best Chance: 2010 Masters. Starting the day 4 shots behind Rory McIlroy looked like a daunting position for Day.However, when Rory imploded in the middle of his round, Day found himself tied for the lead with a birdie on 13.
He would make two more birdies but ultimately finished second behind Charl Schwartzel who birdied his last four holes to win by two.
8) Brandt Snedeker
For a long time Brandt Snedeker had the reputation of a choker. He graduated to the PGA Tour in 2007, won that year, then was MIA for the next few years popping up occasionally only to struggle on the weekend.
An infamous four-putt on the final green of the 2009 BMW Championship cost him $100,000 in earnings, a spot in the following week’s Tour Championship as well as a spot at the 2010 Masters.
He would get soon get his shot at the Tour Championship, and later the Masters. In 2012, he beat out Justin Rose to win the Tour Championship, and in doing so won the Fedex Cup and a tasty $10,000,000 bonus.
Snedeker re-applied himself to the game after his 2009 season and has become one of the most consistent finishers, and best putters, in the world. Over the past 3 seasons, he has won 3 times on the PGA Tour, finished in the top-10 a further 18 times, and racked up six top-20 finishes in majors.
The Masters looks like Snedeker’s best chance to break through. Typically the Augusta greens favour good putting, and Snedeker has finished in the top-20 there in four of his last 5 outings, including two final group appearances in 2008 and 2013.
Mind you, he may be worth a punt at The Open also. He tied the 36-hole record score of 130 last year, and was in contention again at down the stretch at Muirfield this year.
Best Chance: 2008 Masters. Solid rounds of 69, 68 and 70 saw Snedeker tee off Sunday in the final group, two shots behind Trevor Immelman. In just his 2nd start at Augusta, Snedeker eagled the second to take the solo lead. Then he began to struggle.
He admitted later to seeing his name atop the leaderboard, getting nervous, and eventually broke-down both physically and mentally, shooting a final round 77 and struggling to hold back his emotion in the post-round press conference.
7) Luke Donald
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the group is Luke Donald, whom many consider the best player yet to win a major, coming in at number 7.
The truth is that Luke’s regular Tour success and former number 1 world ranking work to skew his actual performances in majors. When you consider that he has actually only won 14 events in his career, winning just 5 of the 244 PGA Tour events he’s played, he is perhaps overrated as a winner. However, there is little doubt he possesses one the best short games in golf and has been one of the most consistent performers over the past two or three seasons.
In fact, during the best form of his career from over the last six years, Donald has actually missed the cut in majors more than he’s finished inside the top-20.
Best Chance: 2006 PGA Championship. Having missed 5 of his first 9 major cuts, Donald produced a streak of 9 major weekends culminating in the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah. Having lead going into the weekend, Donald shot a strong 66 to lead going into the final round.
One problem, Tiger Woods shot a course-record 65 to join him going into Sunday at 14-under. Donald would stumble home with a 74, the worst score of any of the leading pack, and finish in a tie for 3rd.
6) Miguel Angel Jimenez
Other than the Dos Equis man, Miguel Angel Jimenez may be “the most interesting man in the world”, and possibly the most interesting addition to this list.
Whilst he was in contention all week at Muirfield, many don’t consider him among the game’s finest players with a major championship. However, he has reason to be here.
His major starts and top-25s rank only behind Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker, among players in this top-10. His 17 top-25 finishes prove he has major ability. He has a top-10 finish in each of the four majors, and his 19 European Tour wins are as many as Luke Donald and Ian Poulter have combined.
Known as the Mechanic, he seems content to play a soft schedule and give himself a few more chances at walking up the 72nd hole of a major with a lead, and likely a massive cigar in his mouth.
Best Chance: 2001 Open. Although stats show he finished 2nd at the 2000 US Open, coming second to Tiger Woods by 15 shots doesn’t constitute a close-call. His best chance came at Royal Lytham in 2001.
Entering the final round, Jimenez was one shot back of the lead in a tightly packed leaderboard. Two of the leaders (Ceijka and famously Ian Woosnam) got off to terrible starts meaning Miguel had the inside-lane to his first major championship. Whilst he carded an under-par round of 70, he was unable to mount a charge and finished four back of David Duval.
5) Ian Poulter
“I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.” – Ian Poulter, 2008
If Poults was talking about Twitter followers, he may be right. The Englishman has the second most followers for a golfer (1.5m) behind Tiger Woods (3.5m), but is currently lacking when it comes to major victories.
Despite some hair-do disasters at the majors (Exhibit A: 2003 PGA Championship) Poulter has performed well in a number of majors. He made another Sunday charge at Muirfield this year, making ‘Medinah-like putts’, to finish 3rd. It was Poulter’s third top-3 finish at a major and proved once again why many consider to him to be a clutch ‘big-event player’.
His Ryder Cup success appears to be rubbing off in major championships too. He’s only missed 7 cuts in his 43 major starts, and is statistically as likely to finish inside the top-10 as miss the cut.
Best Chance: 2008 Open. Typically being 7-over par through three rounds at a major would mean an early tee time Sunday, but that wasn’t the case for Poulter at Birkdale.
When almost everyone lost their battle with the wind Sunday, Poulter produced a 69 much like his round at Muirfield this past week to post the clubhouse lead. Standing on the 13th tee, Padraig Harrington was level with Poulter and faced a challenging back six holes. He would go on to finish birdie, par, birdie, par, eagle, par to beat Poulter, and take home his second straight Claret Jug.
4) Dustin Johnson
If you were to see Dustin Johnson walking the fairways on the Sunday of a major, you would be mistaken for thinking he doesn’t care. The lazy stride, the laid back posture, the languid attitude to the game seems to be ingrained in the American’s nature. However young he may be, he certainly has major-potential.
Johnson hit the ground running as a pro. He is the first player since Tiger to win an event in each of his first six years out of college. At 29, he already has 7 PGA Tour wins to his name and with his incredible physical ability and strength, he has the ability to overpower just about any tournament, including major championships.
Along with Sergio and Lee Westwood, he is the only active player (without a major) to have played in the final group of a major on three different occasions, doing so in the space of 13 months at 2010 PGA and US Open and the 2011 Open.
Best Chance: 2010 PGA. Until Dustin wins a major, this will be his “one that got away”. In the final group Sunday at Whisting Straits, Dustin Johnson made an impressive birdie two on the 17th and found himself on the 72nd hole needing a par to take home his first major, in just his 9th attempt.
Infamously, he grounded his club in a bunker to the right of the fairway, made a bogey (believing he would go to a playoff), only to be told (photo above) he would receive a two-shot penalty for the infraction, card a triple-bogey and finish T5th.
3) Steve Stricker
Steve Stricker has had one of the more unique careers in recent history. He turned pro in 1990, was on the PGA Tour by 1994 and by 1996 he had won twice, finishing the season 4th on the money list.
However from 2003 to 2007 he suffered a slump, winning as many tournaments as this author (i.e. zero). Having re-applied himself and his life, he miraculously won PGA Tour Comeback Player Of The Year… twice… consecutively (2006, 2007).
He features this low on the list thanks to the longevity of his career and his success. He played his first major in 1993, and has finished inside the top-25 an amazing 27 times since, including 10 top-8 finishes.
Admirably (or stupidly), he missed this year’s Open Championship to spend his 20th anniversary with his wife (#HusbandOfTheYear). Despite his recent reduced, semi-retirement schedule, he’s finished inside the top-20 of 9 of the last 11 majors he’s played.
With that type of major form along with 37 top-10s in the last 5 years on the PGA Tour, it would seem fitting/natural that Stricker finish his career with at least one major win. Although, the increasing length of major courses may ultimately hinder his chances.
Best Chance: 1998 PGA. In the midst of a career year, Stricker teed off the final round tied with Vijah Singh and four shots clear of the chasing pack. Neck-and-neck the entire round, luck was against Stricker. He found the water on the par-3 17th hole just moments after Singh had hit a tree, come back into play and made a birdie.
Stricker would go on to bogey the 71st hole and lose by two strokes.
2) Sergio Garcia
Many people believe Sergio Garcia is the most unfortunate, unluckiest golfer in recent history. One of those people: Sergio Garcia.
Following the 2012 Masters, Sergio said:
“I’m not good enough … I don’t have the thing I need to have. In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
He does that pretty well. 3 top-3s, 9 top-5s, 18 top-10s and 27 top-25 finishes shows the consistency that Garcia’s game has always possessed.
Regarded as one of the finest ball strikers in the game, too often the putter or the space between his ears has held him back. May he needs a female putting lesson from a fellow TaylorMade player?
Of all the players on this list, Sergio is the only player to finish in the top-10 of all the majors in one calendar year, doing so in 2002, a feat only achieved 5 others times since 1987.
He also embarrassed me having calculated he would win The Open last week.
Best Chance: 2007 Open. Whilst Garcia has been in the hunt on several major-Sundays, the Sunday at Carnoustie was his only solo 54-hole lead.
He led 3 shots going into the day. Over the final few holes it came down to a battle between Sergio, Padraig Harrington and Andres Romero. Romero had made 10 birdies Sunday and had a 2-shot lead with 2 to play. A double bogey-bogey finish opened the door to Sergio to win his first major, if he could just par the tough final hole.
His 10ft par putt looked good the entire way, but lipped out and Sergio would go on to lose the 4-hole playoff to Harrington, the first of two runner-up finishes Sergio would have to Harrington over the next 14 months.
“I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field,” he said. “It’s tough, mainly because I don’t feel I did do anything wrong. It seems to me like every time I get in this kind of position, I have no room for error. … And I rarely get many good breaks.”
Chin up Sergio. You inclusion on this list, gives you yet another 2nd place finish!
1) Lee Westwood
With an impressive stat sheet and a blown 54-hole lead at last week’s Open at Muirfield, head bridesmaid in the group is of course, Lee Westwood.
Katherine Heigl starred in the film “27 Dresses” where she played a women always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Well instead of dress, perhaps Westwood’s 27 top-25 finishes in majors merit him a cameo in the sequel.
Much like Stricker, Westwood had early success in his career, followed by a drought and a re-birth of form of late. 8 top-20s in majors from 1997 to 2000 was followed by a streak of 23 majors with just one top-10 and 9 missed cuts.
Alas his form would return and along with a brief stint as the number player in the world, Westwood begin competing at majors regularly. Over the last 6 years, Westwood has had 11 top-10 finishes, including 8 top-3 finishes in the majors.
Both times he has carried a lead into the final round, he has lost out to a late Sunday charge from Phil Mickelson (2010 Masters, 2013 Open).
With 39 professional wins to his name and a new life in Florida, playing and practicing more than ever, it would seem that Westwood’s major breakthrough is a matter of when and not if. Too often his chipping and putting have let him down. However this season he has improved from 189th on the PGA Tour in scrambling (getting up-n-down when you miss a green) to 12th, aiding his chances of winning one golf’s big-four.
Best Chance: 2009 Open. Whilst he has held a 54-hole lead twice and be in the final group on three occasions, I believe the ’09 Open at Turnberry is ultimately the one that likely hurt the most.
Known as the major that Tom Watson nearly won as a 59-year old, the 2009 Open was perhaps the most ‘open Open’ in recent history. Starting the day two back, Westwood began mounting a charge early on Sunday. He held a solo lead as late as the 15th tee, before bogeying 15 and 16 and reaching the 18th at 2-under (the score that would eventually qualify for a playoff). After an incredible fairway bunker shot, Westwood was on the green in regulation. In hindsight, one putt would have won him the Claret Jug, two putts would see him in a playoff.
Westwood, of course, did not know that and believed he needed birdie. An aggressive first putt rolled by the hole and a nervous looking par-putt slid by also, leaving Westwood one stroke out of the playoff, eventually watching Stewart Cink beat Watson to win.
So there you have it. The top-10 majorless players by the stats:
Here’s how the group fit in with the current odds to win the final major of the year, The PGA Championship at Oak Hill:
Tiger Woods: 5/1
Phil Mickelson: 12/1
Adam Scott: 16/1
Justin Rose: 20/1
Lee Westwood: 25/1
Rory McIlroy: 28/1
Sergio Garcia: 33/1
Matt Kuchar: 40/1
Dustin Johnson: 40/1
Luke Donald: 40/1
Brandt Snedeker: 40/1
Jason Day: 40/1
Hunter Mahan: 40/1
Graeme McDowell: 40/1
Charl Schwartzel: 40/1
Steve Stricker: 50/1
Henrik Stenson: 50/1
Rickie Fowler: 50/1
Bubba Watson: 60/1
Ian Poulter: 66/1
…Miguel Angel Jimenez: 200/1