Now who’s the best player without a major?
Dustin Johnson? Crossed his name off the list a year ago. Henrik Stenson followed the next month. A scant two weeks later, it was Jimmy Walker’s turn. Sergio Garcia, some had feared, had become a permanent resident on the list. But in April, he finally bid adieu. Best player without a major. Those four had either been atop the list or at least in the discussion, each having spent time inside the world’s top 10 list without benefit of major success (albeit Stenson and Garcia have each won THE PLAYERS Championship, which some consider … well, you be the judge). But thanks to their respective wins in the last 12 months, they’ve gracefully bowed out, more than willing to let others carry the torch -- or shoulder the burden, depending on your perspective – starting at this week’s U.S. Open. Consider it an unprecedented string of success for the list … and we’re not even including 2015, when Jordan Spieth and Jason Day won their first majors. There was a seven-major stretch in the late 1950s when Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and Gary Player all won their first majors, but each of those future World Golf Hall of Famers was still in his 20s at the time, still relatively unscarred. Casper was making just his seventh major start when he won; Palmer and Player were at nine each. Compare that to Garcia, who won in his 74th major start. Or Stenson’s 41 or Johnson’s 25 or Walker’s 18. Plus, these four were older – in their 30s, or in the case of Stenson, 40. Of course, that’s the thing about the list. Not only is it unofficial, the definition is a bit murky. Zach Johnson never considered himself on the list. He was still in the growing phase of his career and had never contended in a major prior to his 2007 Masters win, the first of his two major victories. “I don’t know if there’s an age parameter,” Zach said when asked to define the list. “If we’re talking rookies or 2-3 years out of the gate, that’s hard to say. I’m not suggesting they’re flashes in the pan, but to me, that best to never win is a connotation or description of an individual that’s been out here for a long time and put himself in position a lot but never came through. “Does that make sense? I don’t know what the age is, but I think it’s more of an experience factor.” Still, it’s difficult to avoid factoring in a player’s current world ranking, regardless of his age or experience. Should Hideki Matsuyama, ranked No. 4, not be on the list simply because he’s 25? Erin Hills will be his 19th major appearance, one more than when Walker won the PGA Championship last year. “Certainly to be considered one of the top guys to not have won a major means you're one of the top guys. It also means you've not won a major,” said Matt Kuchar, who’s most definitely on the list. “I think at some point kind of everybody has been on that list, every great player is on it until they win their first.” But do players actually like being on the list? Some do; others want nothing to do with it. Younger players see it as a promise of things to come; the grizzled vets wonder if it reflects their shortcomings. Perhaps another way to look at the list – it’s a positive to be on it until it becomes a negative. “You never want to be on that list, you never want to be the top player that hasn't won the major,” said Patrick Reed, whose name has certainly been under consideration the last few years. “It's one of those things that to be able to make it in the Hall of Fame, to be able to be a household name and that kind of thing, I would think you do need to have a major underneath your belt.” You never want to be on that list, you never want to be the top player that hasn't won the major. Charley Hoffman was in contention through three rounds at the Masters this year, and he’s won four times on TOUR. But he isn’t on the list, nor does he necessarily want the expectations that come with being on it. “I wouldn't put my name in that category. It's not a place I don't put a lot of stress on,” he said. “That's why I play all right at the Masters. I wouldn't say I don't care but it’s not like someone is picking me to win that week.” “Obviously I would love to be in that conversation because that means you need one, you want one. I think the more pressure I put on myself at the major championship, the worse I tend to play.” On the flip side, Ryan Palmer – like Hoffman, a multiple winner on TOUR but with a spotty record in majors – would love to elevate his game and be considered for the list. “If you're considered one of the best players without a major, you've done some pretty good things in this game and had some pretty good success,” Palmer said. “I don't look at it as a negative thing being the best player not to win a major. I know Sergio had so many close calls, and I know it was pretty cool to finally see him breakthrough and win, that's for sure.” So now that Garcia, DJ, Stenson and Walker are off the list, who belongs at the top? “Still gotta say Westwood, right?” said Zach Johnson. Certainly, Lee Westwood and Garcia have spent much of their careers as 1 and 1A on the list. With Sergio out of the mix, it’s easy to consider the 44-year-old Englishman as the leader in the clubhouse. He’s been the European Tour’s Player of the Year three times, he’s played on 10 Ryder Cup teams, he’s won 39 golf tournaments on five continents, and he’s a former World No. 1, having held that position for 22 weeks. The only other player to have been No. 1 and not won a major is Luke Donald. Plus, Westwood has been in contention many times to cross his name off the list. Of his 76 major starts, he has 11 top-5s, including three runner-up finishes. “Majors are the only thing missing,” Westwood once said a few years ago. “Maybe I’ll never win one. Maybe I will. I could. I’ve got no answer to that. Keep working hard and trying to get myself into the position. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” A few years ago, Steve Stricker’s name would have been more prominent. During the 2009 FedExCup Playoffs, he rose to world No. 2 and won three events that season. But at age 50 and playing a reduced schedule, he’s five years past the age of the oldest first-time major winner (Jerry Barber, who was 45 when he claimed the 1961 PGA). History is against him this week. Still, after qualifying as a sectional medalist, he could ride the emotion of playing the first U.S. Open held in his home state of Wisconsin. If it happens, he’ll be the feel-good story of the year. Soon after Garcia’s win in April, the best-player-without-a-major question was posed to Kuchar, another familiar name up for consideration. His seven TOUR wins includes a PLAYERS Championship and a World Golf Championship. He’s a consistent top-10 machine, arguably the best on TOUR in that category in recent years, and he has eight top 10s in his 45 major starts. Oh, and he won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics last year behind two major winners in Justin Rose and Stenson. The 38-year-old Kuchar contemplated his answer for a few seconds before responding. “It's funny,” he said. “I've not run through who the other names would be, but I'd certainly think I would be one of those guys, sure.” There’s one other thing he’s also sure of. “I'm hoping that I can get off that list sometime quickly,” he said. “Sometime soon.” Perhaps, he hopes, as soon as this week. FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Depending on the criteria, here’s an unofficial list of the active Best Players Without a Major. IF WORLD RANKINGS MATTER … Players without a major currently ranked inside the world Top 10: Hideki Matsuyama (4th), Alex Noren (8th), Rickie Fowler (9th), Jon Rahm (10th). IF EXPERIENCE MATTERS … A few players with 45 or more major starts without a win: Lee Westwood (76 starts), Steve Stricker (68), Luke Donald (53), Paul Casey (52), Matt Kuchar (45). FYI: Donald is not in the field at Erin Hills. IF FEDEXCUPS MATTER … Three players in the U.S. Open field have won FedExCup titles but not a major: Bill Haas (2011), Brandt Snedeker (2012), Billy Horschel (2014). IF AGE IS NO FACTOR … These players have plenty of time to break through: Si Woo Kim (age 21), Justin Thomas (age 24), Thomas Pieters (age 25), Tyrrell Hatton (age 25) IF THE EYE TEST MATTERS … A few names (but certainly not all) who just seem like they have the game to win a major: Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Branden Grace.
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