PGA Tour: Ranking 2013 Likely 1st-Time Major Winners

James McMahonContributor IMarch 5, 2013

PGA Tour: Ranking 2013 Likely 1st-Time Major Winners

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    Winning a major golf championship comes down to a lot more than talent. Other factors such as timing, location and even luck play a significant role in career-defining victories played out on the largest of stages and against the most challenging of fields. Those “X-factors” are a big reason why certain players own major championships and others live in a seemingly never-ending search for that breakthrough victory.

    As the International stage of golf transitions from the Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Els era, a number of established, up-and-coming and “why is it taking so long” golfers are searching for their first shot at glory’s most elusive one—at least as it applies to them. Yet recent history tells us first-time winners are more likely than the repeat variety, so here are 10 of the more likely to join golf’s elite as major championship winners.

    Only four can win so there are no guarantees, but if a first-timer is coming, it’s a good bet it will be from this list.

    All career finish statistics via PGA Tour player profile pages.

10. Lee Westwood

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    It might surprise some to see Lee Westwood so low on this list, but I think we’re being generous by including him at all given how long so many have been waiting for a breakthrough that seems to never come. A year or two ago, Westwood would be a lot further down this list, yet time, patience and confidence is waning in regard to Westwood avoiding the 0-fer when it comes to majors in an otherwise distinguished career.

    Few players on the bad side of the majors club has had the disappointment Westwood has suffered, but few of them have had the talent and opportunity the Englishmen has had either.

    While patience for Westwood might be wearing thin, it’s fair to note that he posted top-10 finishes in both The Masters and U.S. Opens last year before struggling in the second half of the majors circuit. His last such start was a missed cut at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island that followed a less-than-inspired showing in the Open Championship.

    That said, it’s still hard to count Westwood out of the major discussion given his talent and experience.

    One thing’s for sure: Time is running short on Westwood given the crop of younger players holding headier spots on this list. That’s not to say 2013 is the last hurrah for the former world No. 1, but winning a major considering the influx of emerging talent isn’t getting any easier.

9. Charles Howell III

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    One might assume that too much respect is being paid to Charles Howell III for his opening-round besting of Tiger Woods at last week’s World Match Play Championship. Fact of the matter is that Howell was playing much better than his No. 60 in the world status before Arizona, and it’s a form that is likely to continue as the young(ish) American’s confidence continues to swell.

    In six events this year, Howell III has already posted three top-10 finishes, highlighted by back-to-back third- and second-place finishes in Hawaii to open the season. That fast start came on the heels of four consecutive top-15 performances to close out the 2012 campaign, including a second-place showing in the non-official Franklin Templeton Shootout in Florida.

    Despite his diminutive stature, the slender Howell III has always been a long driver of the ball but confidence and short game have been blockades to his development into a top-tier player worthy of a major championship. Bottom line, Howell’s late 2012, early 2013 and impressive victory over Woods last week are signs that the significant potential held within that small frame is ready to blossom.

8. Justin Rose

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    If Justin Rose were a fine wine, he would certainly be well aged prior to uncorking. Rose first burst onto the scene at the 1998 British Open where he threatened to win the major as an amateur up to the very end, missing a playoff by just two strokes. The promise and success forecasted for the Englishmen from that weekend, however, hasn’t come as quickly or easily as promised 15 years ago, but there’s no denying the talent Rose has.

    That skill has started to be complemented by maturity, and that combination has Rose among those as a true candidate for a career-establishing victory in 2013.

    Consider for a moment the PGA Tour victories he has to his credit. Rose is a World Golf Championship winner (The Cadillac Championship) and has claimed The Memorial, AT&T National and the BMW Championship, all significant events on the PGA Tour’s annual schedule featuring quality fields.

    In limited starts the past four months both here and abroad, Rose has been on his game, posting a pair of top-five finishes on the European Tour and providing a solid showing at the World Match Play last week to back up his victory late last year. It’s an accomplishment that gave Rose three consecutive years with at least one win on the PGA Tour.

    In the 2012 PGA Championship, Rose finished in third place, providing further fodder for a major breakthrough in 2013. It’s certainly taken longer than most expected, but it’s clear the Englishmen has the chops to do just that.

7. Matt Kuchar

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    Speaking of players with significant amateur performances, Matt Kuchar is still celebrating what is likely his most significant professional victory at the World Match Play Championships last week, and is eyeing even bigger things as The Masters looms just a month away. That victory marked the third time in only five starts that the former Yellow Jacket has posted a top-10 showing in 2013, promising better results to come when things start to get real serious in April and beyond.

    While Kuchar hasn’t had many near-misses in majors recently, his career victories suggest that he is more than comfortable on golf’s biggest stage. The one-time golden boy amateur of golf, Kuchar has won the PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, the FedEx Cup opener Barclay’s Championship and bested the always impressive field at the Honda Championship in West Palm Beach.

    The opportunities to win a major, however, have been few and far between as Kuchar owns only a pair of top-10 finishes—Masters and U.S. Open—since turning pro 13 years ago. His recent fine form, steady game and consistent putting might very well change that in 2013.

6. Dustin Johnson

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    If it weren’t for a waste area that turned out to be a bunker or a bush by the Pacific that wouldn’t relinquish a wayward and ill-conceived drive, Dustin Johnson wouldn’t even be on this list. Yet coulda, woulda and shoulda often make for nada, which is the number of majors the big hitting boy from the Palmetto State currently owns and thus his listing here.

    By and large, when Johnson gets into contention at majors his biggest problem is, well, Dustin Johnson.

    The guy can hit the ball a mile; the guy can also hit the ball a mile into areas that one simply can’t recover from on courses such as Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits, not to mention Merion and Oak Hill. In major golf, substance bests style almost every time, and that is a lesson Johnson has to master.

    That said, the recent body of work suggests he’s ready to make the turn from stud to star. Johnson won his first start of the season at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, an early-season showing that backs up his 2012 campaign that saw him post nine top-10 finishes. His near miss at the 2010 PGA Championship and his challenge at the U.S. Open that same year is proof he can compete on the big stage.

    What Johnson has left to prove is whether his mind can match his skill down the stretch of a major golf championship. Whether that proof comes in 2013 is worth watching because Dustin always is.

5. Ian Poulter

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    What Ian Poulter lacks in major championship hardware he more than makes up for in confidence, unique style and Twitter followers. To be sure, no one thinks more of Poulter’s game than he does, but that self-confidence has yet to translate to major pedigree or really even anything close to it.

    Despite only two career victories on the PGA Tour, Poulter has been stalking a breakthrough championship victory with three top-10 finishes in his past four major starts, including a tie for third in the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, the latest major any golfer can be weighted by.

    The Englishmen is also a big stage actor, as his two victories have both come in World Golf Championship events and his record in the past three Ryder Cups is beyond reproach.

    Already this season, Poulter has posted two top-10 finishes, highlighted by his fourth-place showing at last week’s Match Play Championships in the snowy Arizona desert. His steady game is a perfect fit for the major tracts, giving all the Twitter followers something to look forward to beyond the clothes and the hair.

4. Hunter Mahan

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    Considering the way this Lone Star cat plays on Sundays over some of the toughest courses on the PGA Tour, it’s amazing he hasn’t charged from final-round afterthought to major championship winner at least once in his career. Honestly, not since Mark Calcavecchia was in his prime has there been a golfer that can go so low so fast as Hunter Mahan often does when it’s time to push the chips to the middle of the table.

    Problem is, Mahan hasn’t been able to transition his late tournament charges from regular Tour events to major championships. That’s not to say, however, that the pedigree isn’t there. Mahan owns a pair of World Golf Championship titles among his five career victories and has top-10 finishes in three of the four majors—U.S Open, Masters and British.

    Still on the youngish side of his career, Mahan is poised to take the next step and just needs to combine his trademark finishes with a strong start on the right course. His accuracy and improved short game are naturals for Merion and Oak Hill, so don’t be surprised if perhaps the best American player still seeking a major title ends that search this summer.

3. Adam Scott

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    For nearly 14 holes in the final round of the 2012 British Open, it appeared Adam Scott was poised to remove himself from any list detailing the best players without major credentials. Four consecutive bogeys later and Ernie Els had his third major and Scott had his worst defeat as a professional.

    The lanky, long-putter-yielding Australian had a modest bounce back with a top-15 showing in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, but 2013 will provide early returns as to whether that Open collapse is staying with Scott or not. If his mind is right, Scott has one of the sweetest swings in the game, and the anchored putter has given him enough confidence around the greens to win the big one despite his Royal Lytham meltdown.

    The question as to Scott’s psyche and his preparedness for a 2013 major triumph could very well be answered upon his return to Augusta National, where he has posted top-10s the past two years. There’s no question Scott has the length and shot-making ability to claim a Green Jacket.

    The question that will be answered is whether that anchored putter can stay afloat and whether or not his mind is clear from his Open Championship drowning.

2. Brandt Snedeker

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    Simply put, no one has been better than Brandt Snedeker in 2013. Come to think of it, no one had a better close to 2012 for that matter. The reigning 2012 FedEx Cup champion has already won once this year and has a comfortable lead in the early goings of the 2013 FedEx Cup. It’s a cushion built by steady play that resulted in a victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a second- and a third-place finish and overall five top-25s in his 2013 starts.

    Snedeker leaped onto the scene several years ago with a gut-wrenching loss at The Masters that was punctuated by a couple of water balls on Sunday’s back nine. Yet despite winning multiple times on the Tour, his success in majors has been few and far between.

    In fact, Snedeker has been just as likely to miss the cut in golf’s biggest tournaments as he is to be in contention come the weekend.

    Yet maturity and success can change a golfer and prepare him for the type of wins that inexperience and self doubt tend to keep at arm’s length. Snedeker’s FedEx Cup title (not to mention the $10 million that came with it) has taken him to new heights, and the next logical step is a major championship victory to validate his status as one of the game’s finest players.

1. Luke Donald

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    No player has ever relished owning the title of “Best Player to Have Never Won a Major” but few who’ve had it qualify for ownership like Luke Donald does. The Englishman spent a period of post-Tiger-dominance as the world No. 1 (before Rory wrestled it away) and has challenged in his fair share of major championships without a positive conclusion to the effort.

    Donald’s run to the world’s top ranking and his subsequent presence among the top three has included multiple top-five finishes in The Masters, a top-10 showing in the British Open and another at the U.S. Open.

    Making the likelihood of a major breakthrough more likely this year are the championship venues. We know he can play at Augusta National, and the other championship stages—Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill—demand accuracy and consistency, a pair of traits common to Donald’s game.

    It’s no overstatement to suggest Donald’s lack of major success is a significant surprise. It’s also no exaggeration to predict that surprise will be addressed in the coming months as the moniker of best player without a major is passed along to another deserving player.

    Should he fail again this year, the pressure will build and his status in subsequent similar lists will slide. Those are two events Donald fully expects to avoid in 2013.