Golf

Golfers Most Desperate to Win 1st Major Championship in 2014

James McMahonContributor INovember 30, 2013

Golfers Most Desperate to Win 1st Major Championship in 2014

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    With a single Masters victory, Adam Scott elevated from underachiever to national hero this past April. A couple months later, Justin Rose went from bust to breakout with his U.S. Open triumph. At the PGA Championship, Jason Dufner transformed from Twitter sensation to established golf champion almost overnight.

    Such is the power of winning a first major championship regardless of the stature and status of the golfer that achieves it. Like a holy grail of sorts, claiming one of golf’s signature events can wash away years of frustration and failure or validate careers that seemed far from great just hours before.

    Just as Scott, Rose and Dufner have been elevated by their major accomplishments, there's a host of talented, motivated and even desperate golfers hoping to walk in their footsteps in 2014.

    Veterans like Lee Westwood and Luke Donald are running out of time. Underachievers such as Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter are searching for redemption. There are also golfers like Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar who are entering their prime and eager to legitimize their rise.

    Whatever the motivation, here are the 10 golfers most in need of a career breakthrough in 2014 and what it will take for them to realize their major ambitions.

10. Jason Day

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    Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

    The Rush: The reality is that Day’s among the two or three most talented golfers without a major championship to his credit. That said, he’s only 26 years old and has ample time on his side to realize his true potential—thus his position on the back end of this list.

    Despite the fact he’s won only once on the PGA Tour in his still-young career, Day demonstrated significant major championship pedigree in 2013. The talented Aussie posted a trio of top-10 finishes in golf’s biggest tournaments, highlighted by a tie for second at the U.S. Open and a solo third at The Masters.

    Building off those performances, Day captured the World Cup in Australia last week, and his game seems to be in strong form heading into 2014. While the pressure to win a major isn't near that of others on this list, the opportunity and promise to do it is bettered by no other major-less golfer in the game today.

     

    The Wall: Day has come close to winning majors no less than four times over the past several years but hasn't been able to close the deal on Sunday, when glory is ultimately achieved.

    In the final round of the 2013 Masters, Day grabbed the outright lead on the back nine only to falter with a pair of late bogeys. He followed that effort by challenging late in the U.S. Open only to watch Justin Rose make the signature shots down the stretch to capture his first major.

    Ultimately, the 2010 Byron Nelson champion will have to prove he can handle the pressure of a Sunday charge toward a first major in order to seal the deal on his great promise.

     

    The 2014 Outlook: After this year’s near misses, Day is determined to bust through and is a strong bet from this group to celebrate that career-defining moment in 2014.

    There’s no doubt the world’s 11th-ranked player has the chops to make it happen; he just needs to show it late on Sunday with the world’s best golfers all around him and the pressure bearing down on him.

9. Dustin Johnson

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    Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

    The Rush: Like Day, Johnson is still in the early stages of a promising career and has suffered a couple painful missed opportunities in majors during the past several years.

    That said, there’s no denying he has the power and skill to win a major championship sooner rather than later. There’s not a course his length can’t handle, and his iron play is good enough to capitalize when he’s finding fairways on a consistent basis.

    The eight-time PGA Tour winner was in position to win the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach before his nerves betrayed him, but his biggest disappointment came later that summer at the PGA Championship when a controversial rules violation derailed him.

    Johnson suffered a two-shot penalty for unknowingly grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole, costing him entry into a playoff that was eventually won by Martin Kaymer.

    It’s the type of loss that can only be erased by breaking through and winning a major, and that is certainly a motivating factor in Johnson’s drive toward doing just that.

     

    The Wall: Johnson is an aggressive player by nature, and he knows his greatest strength is his power and distance. Those same traits and talents can also get him into trouble at the wrong time in the toughest tournaments.

    At the 2010 U.S. Open, the 29-year-old had a three-shot final round lead before triple-bogeying the second hole and then attempting to drive the green on the third.

    The ball was lost in some thick brush—and with it went the South Carolina native’s chance to win his first major at historic Pebble Beach.

    Aggressive play is part of Johnson’s DNA, and that shouldn't change. He just needs to find a way to make better decisions when in contention late in a major.

     

    2014 Outlook: Johnson already earned a 2014 victory with his triumph at the WGC-HSBC Champions in early November and appears determined to improve upon a subpar 2013 season.

    The world’s 14th-ranked golfer earned a top-10 finish at the 2013 PGA Championship and will likely duplicate that effort a couple times this year to give himself a chance for that career-defining victory.

    The question Johnson must answer is whether he can put four solid rounds together under the pressure of a major and make the right decisions when push comes to shove. He’ll have his chances in 2014 but will likely have to wait at least another year before realizing victory.

8. Sergio Garcia

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    The Rush: One would think Garcia would be higher on this list considering how long he’s been on tour and just how far he’s fallen short of promise and potential. Problem is, just about everyone has written off the Spaniard as a viable threat to win a major and expectations are at an all-time low.

    Early in his career, Garcia had his fair share of close calls in majors, including a pair of battles with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship and the 2002 U.S. Open, which left many to assume multiple majors were a foregone conclusion for the then young talent.

    The reality, however, has been vastly different. Garcia has only challenged in golf’s biggest events a handful of times since his strong start, and those attempts have ended poorly.

    The eight-time PGA Tour winner actually got out of the gates well in 2013, posting a tie for eighth at the Masters and three other top 10s prior to the U.S. Open. He faded in the second half, however, failing to contend in another major while being engulfed by his well-documented feud with Woods.

     

    The Wall: Save for his significant putting issues, Garcia has always had more than enough talent to be among the top 10 golfers in the world. The problem, however, has typically been between the Spaniard’s ears, where he falls woefully short of the confidence needed to win a major championship.

    In fact, Garcia admitted as much two years ago following a dismal third-round performance at Augusta National. After shooting a three-over 75 to turn a one-shot deficit into an eight-stroke hole, the world’s 19th-ranked golfer openly conceded he lacked the belief and the game to win a major championship, providing a real glimpse into just how far the once-promising golfer has slipped.

     

    2014 Outlook: Garcia already has a pair of top-15 finishes in the early start to the 2014 season, which provides promise to a strong campaign.

    That said, unless a drastic change in his mental makeup is quietly underway, it’s hard to imagine Sergio winning a major title in 2014, or any other year for that matter. He remains too fragile under the most pressure-packed moments, and the field of golfers he’s competing against is just too strong.

7. Hunter Mahan

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    The Rush: If there was any doubting Mahan’s major pedigree, he answered it in 2013—albeit without gaining that career-defining triumph he craves.

    The popular Texan played in the Sunday final pairing at both the U.S. Open and British Open this year but ultimately failed in both outings to challenge for his first major title down the stretch. That said, Mahan is among the most complete golfers without one of golf’s signature titles on his resume and absolutely has the chops to change that in the near future.

    That talent notwithstanding, Mahan has failed to put himself into contention in majors nearly enough over the past several years, a period that includes five missed cuts. While only 31 years old, the pressure is undoubtedly mounting to get back into contention in 2014, just as he did this past season.

    Only the next time around, the American will hope for better final-round results.

     

    The Wall: A terrific iron player and putter, Mahan has the ability to get hot and go low in any round he plays, just as he did at Merion and Muirfield last year. Putting it together for over four rounds in a major championship, however, has proven to be more difficult for the five-time PGA Tour winner.

    Slow starts and disappointing finishes have plagued Mahan in majors during his career and have, by and large, been the culprit in his inability to claim that elusive major title.  

     

    The 2014 Outlook: Mahan’s mid-summer run in the majors last year seemed to re-energize his career and returned him to the discussion of the best golfers without a major. That said, he disappears far too often in the sport’s biggest events and puts a great deal of pressure on himself to go low on the weekends more often than not.

    It’s not the recipe for winning majors, and Mahan isn't likely to get one this year if he continues to follow that path.  

6. Brandt Snedeker

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    The Rush: Like many on this list, Snedeker has challenged in several majors during his career only to see those opportunities for victory fade away.

    In fact, the American was in the final pairing at the Masters for the second time this past April before limping home with a 75 to finish in a tie for sixth. Likewise, the former Vanderbilt University star held the 36-hole lead at the 2012 Open Championship before playing the weekend at 73-74 to finish a distant third to Ernie Els.

    There’s no denying Snedeker’s short-game skills, particularly his putting prowess, but the dramatic shifts in fortune have certainly taken a toll. Until he finally claims that first major, he’ll continue to be the player who has stumbled from out ahead in several of them.

     

    The Wall: While Snedeker can get hot with his putter and pull away from the field on any course, he’s also capable of blow-up holes that can spoil opportunities to win majors as quickly as they’re created.

    Case in point: While squarely in contention during the second round of this year’s British Open, Snedeker committed a mind-numbing three double bogeys and a triple en route to a 79 that ultimately doomed his chances to triumph at the extremely difficult Muirfield.

    If those type of mistakes persist, Snedeker will find it difficult, if not impossible to stay away from lists such as this in the future.

     

    2014 Outlook: The promise of the 32-year-old winning a major in 2014 took a hit last month when he was injured jumping off a Segway in China.

    It’s the second injury for Snedeker in less than a year, and there’s no telling how the time away from competition and practice will affect him this time around.

    That said, it’s fair to say it puts him at a disadvantage heading into next year and makes his mission for a major victory all the more difficult.

5. Matt Kuchar

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    The Rush: It sure doesn’t seem like it, but it’s been more than 15 years since Kuchar burst onto the scene as a lovable amateur challenger at the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open.

    Yet while it seemed as if the sky was the limit for the former Georgia Tech star after finishing 21st at Augusta National and 14th at Olympic Club that year, the ultimate accomplishment of winning a major championship has avoided Kuchar as a professional.

    The American won twice in 2013, including the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and finished no worse than 28th in the majors, highlighted by a tie for eighth at the Masters. Additionally, Kuchar already has a top-10 showing in the early start of the 2014 season and appears in top form entering 2014.

    Given that strong play and the fact he’s now 35 years old, the pressure to win a major has undoubtedly ramped up for Kuchar, who has become one of the top four or five players in the world without such a career-defining triumph.

    Bottom line, the magnifying glass is growing larger and the criticism will only grow louder if a defining victory doesn't happen soon for Kuchar.

     

    The Wall: There’s no denying that Kuchar is by far one of the most likable and even-keeled guys on the PGA Tour. The issue, however, is whether he owns the killer instinct needed to claim one of golf’s four biggest prizes.

    Up to now, the answer to that question can only be no. Despite winning six times on tour, Kuchar has only challenged in a handful of majors, with his best opportunities coming at the comfortable confines of Augusta National.

    It takes a particular mindset to break through in a major, and while his personality is likable by all, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s conducive to winning one of golf’s biggest prizes when the pressure ramps up and the competition steps up.

     

    2014 Outlook: It might be unfair to take the “believe it when I see it stance,” but unfortunately, that’s where we are with Kuchar.

    His game is good enough to win week in and out on the PGA Tour, but he simply hasn't shown enough in majors during his prime to predict a change in fortune this year.

    Expect him to be around early in a couple of majors, but a late Sunday charge is hard to foresee in 2014.

4. Henrik Stenson

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    The Rush: Whether it was on the PGA Tour or its European counterpart, no golfer finished the 2013 season in better form or by winning as much cash as Henrik Stenson.

    The talented Swede became the first golfer to capture both the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same year, and in the process, he soared to No. 3 in the world rankings. That success notwithstanding, the one thing Stenson failed to do in 2013 was win a first career major despite putting himself squarely into contention twice in the second half of the season.

    Top-three finishes at both the British Open and PGA Championship this summer demonstrated his major pedigree, but now the European has to close the deal in one of golf’s signature events to truly put himself into the upper echelon of golf’s elite.

    Streaks such as the one Stenson is enjoying, which includes a triumph in the PGA Tour season-ending Tour Championship, don’t come along very often. Given that, the time is now for Stenson to capitalize on his strong form and claim the one accomplishment that is missing on his career resume.

     

    The Wall: Stenson has consistently hit the ball long and straight throughout his career. What’s held him back, however, is a putter that can go sideways fast and at the absolute wrong time.

    Due in large part to laser-like iron play down the stretch, Stenson held his own on the greens during his sterling second half of 2013, but he’s yet to prove he can drain truly meaningful putts late on Sunday with a major championship on the line.

    Given the level of his game and his soaring confidence, the opportunity will undoubtedly present itself again in 2014, and if a major victory is forthcoming, the putter will be the difference between glory and disappointment.

     

    2014 Outlook: While his significant accomplishments in 2013 might have surprised many, it’s more likely that Stenson was actually fulfilling his great potential en route to winning the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai.

    If that is indeed the case, we can expect Stenson to be in contention often next year. Provided he continues his renaissance on the greens, there’s no doubt the 37-year-old is among the two or three most likely golfers to successfully disappear from this list in the very near future.

3. Ian Poulter

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    Francois Nel/Getty Images

    The Rush: With all due respect, few current golfers have spoken more and accomplished less than Poulter has the past several years.

    No stranger to making brash, humorous and sometimes controversial comments via social media, Poulter is, however, unfamiliar with the emotions of winning a major championship despite a wealth of talent and a sterling Ryder Cup record.

    The Englishman watched last year as three golfers won their first majors, including fellow countryman Rose at the U.S. Open. At the same time, Poulter mounted only a single late charge toward a tie for third in the British Open, an effort that was largely lost in the wake of Phil Mickelson’s stunning victory.

    Albeit popular for his distinctive wardrobe, unique sense of humor and willingness to speak his mind, the 37-year-old has only two PGA Tour victories on his resume and doesn't appear to be trending upward the same way other international players are.

     

    The Wall: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what prevented Poulter from challenging in more majors and ultimately breaking through in one this year, but one has to think there is an issue with confidence.   

    The world’s 13th-ranked golfer has performed brilliantly in the Ryder Cup, including a dominant showing in Europe’s 2012 victory, proving his game can hold up under pressure and against the world’s best golfers. 

    Following a 2012 season in which he posted three top 10s in majors, expectations were high for Poulter this year, but he clearly struggled to live up to them. Outside of his Open Championship charge, the golfer missed the cut at Augusta National and finished in a tie for 61st at the PGA Championship.

    Time is still on the European’s side, but he’s got to rediscover his brash confidence in golf’s toughest tests if he is to finally capitalize on his great potential.

     

    2014 Outlook: After largely struggling in the FedEx Cup playoffs, Poulter’s game rebounded this fall, highlighted by his second-place showing at the WGC-HSBC Champions event in early November.

    Yet it’s the pressure to win a major that he’ll have to contend with in 2014, and based on his showing this past season, it’s hard to predict a markedly better outcome for the outspoken golfer next year. If we’re wrong, however, it's a guarantee we'll hear all about it on Twitter.

2. Luke Donald

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    Francois Nel/Getty Images

    The Rush: Donald hasn't just failed to win a major in his solid career; he’s absolutely struggled in many of them over the past several years.

    With a wealth of talent that had him ranked No. 1 in the world less than two years ago, the Englishman has been among the most disappointing and confounding golfers in recent years as his great potential continues to go unrealized.

    After playing well enough to post a top 10 finish in this year’s U.S. Open, Donald struggled in the second half of the season and missed the cut at both the British Open and PGA Championship, and his tie for 25th at the Masters didn't inspire a world of confidence earlier in the season as well.

    Once one of the most promising golfers in the game, Donald is now 35 years old, hasn't won on the PGA Tour since early 2012 and continues to let opportunities pass by without putting his best foot forward. If that continues the next couple years, the pressure to win a major may well fade into acceptance that it’s just not to be.

     

    The Wall: In 2013, Donald ranked 157th in driving distance on tour, averaging just 278 yards per launch. There’s no denying that lack of power puts significant pressure on the other parts of his game and provides little room for error on the difficult courses that host major championships.

    Over the past couple years, that stress has shown in his iron play and short game on the difficult courses that host major championships. And as his scores have gone up, Donald’s confidence has waned to the point that he has missed the cut four times in his past 12 majors dating back to 2011.

    While that same span of tournaments includes several top-10 finishes, Donald hasn't managed to remain in serious contention late into Sunday to give himself a real chance to get that career-altering victory.

     

    2014 Outlook: The sight of Donald blowing up at both the British Open and PGA Championship this summer just doesn't inspire great belief that a major breakthrough is forthcoming next year.

    Confidence is crucial to winning one of golf’s most prized tournaments, and Donald has to string together some solid performances to gain his back before actually winning a first major title.

    He’s a decent bet to win his first PGA Tour event in nearly two years, but winning a major is simply too much to ask of him considering recent results.

1. Lee Westwood

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    The Rush: Like Donald, Westwood has experienced the pride of rising to No. 1 in the world rankings. Yet just like his fellow countryman, he’s never tasted the sweet thrill of victory in a major championship despite more than enough talent to do so.

    The Englishman has certainly had his opportunities, including a final-round lead at the Open Championship this past July, but simply hasn't executed the crucial shots down the stretch to escape the very top of this somewhat dubious list.

    By far one of the best chances of his career to win a major, Westwood’s British Open hopes were dashed by a final-round 75 as he watched Mickelson blow past him on Muirfield’s back nine. It was certainly a bitter setback for the Brit, who struggled at the PGA Championship just a month later en route to a tie for 33rd.

    That said, there’s still plenty of reason to believe Westwood can ultimately break through. In his past eight major starts, he’s finished in the top 10 four times, proving he still has plenty of game to challenge for that title.

    At the age of 40, however, the window to get it done is growing smaller, and the two-time PGA Tour winner must capitalize on an opportunity like he had at Muirfield the next time one presents itself.   

     

    The Wall: Too many times in his impressive career, Westwood has been undone by an unsteady short game and inconsistent putter.

    Take this past season for example. In overall putting, he ranked 166th on tour, and in the vital strokes gained-putting category, he was an equally pedestrian 168th. Likewise, the world’s 23rd-ranked golfer was only 162nd in greens in regulation from 75 to 100 yards out.

    Those stats bear out Westwood’s inability to capitalize on enough scoring opportunities or to save crucial strokes when needed down the stretch of a big tournament.

    Couple those short-game issues with the mounting pressure of Father Time, and one can understand why Westwood has struggled so mightily to turn contention into victory.

     

    2014 Outlook: While it’s fair to suggest time is running thin on Westwood, it’s also evident by his play at Muirfield in July and at the Masters the past two years that he still has the game to win one of golf’s biggest prizes.

    The Englishman is worthy of his top spot on this list, but by extension, he’s also among the most capable of playing his way off of it in 2014. We’re not necessarily calling for the victory, but expect Westwood to give himself a real chance in at least a couple majors next year.

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