Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Others Explain Why It's Hard to Win a Major

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2013

“It's hard to win a major championship, let alone repeat a major championship,” Graeme McDowell said earlier this year.

If it’s so hard to win majors, why were Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy able to make it look easy, and then why did it get hard for them?

To win one, what is the right combination of ingredients? And why is it so hard for most golfers to do?

Woods has said it often boils down to small things. Although having seen some of his victories, it can be hard to believe that is the case.

“It's just a shot here and there. It's making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce here, capitalizing on an opportunity here and there,” he explained.

He said it can come anyplace and anytime during the tournament.

“It could happen on the first day, it could happen on the last day. But it's turning that tide and getting the momentum at the right time or capitalizing on our opportunity. That's what you have to do to win major championships,” he said.

Padraig Harrington said it isn’t necessarily important to be playing well before a major, although Phil Mickelson has won before majors and then won majors.

Harrington said he played the U.S. Open one year and finished 36th, which he thought was an acceptable outcome. A delivery guy brought a package to his house the next week and said, "Gee whiz, you had a terrible week last week. You're having a terrible season. Things are all going wrong.’"

A couple of weeks later, Harrington won the Open Championship.

“It is that close at times,” he said. “You can go to a major, and a few little things just don't go your way—not necessarily maybe not swinging it as well as you could or you miss the odd putt,” he said. “In major tournaments you've just got to understand it's about being patient and waiting for your turn.”

He said he also copies the way Mickelson talks about majors.

“He used to say, and I thought it was tremendous bit of wordplay or psychology, whenever he was asked about you're the best player not to have won a major, he'd always say, ‘Yeah, I'm not just going to win one, I want to win majors.' I think it makes it easier to win one when you know you're going to win a few.”

Harrington also changed his schedule to accommodate majors and modified his attitude.

“I started to trust myself a little bit more,” he said. “Up to that, I was building—I was hoping to play well any given week.”

Mickelson carried the best-player-without-a-major monkey on his back for several years. He recalled that pressure.

“When I was trying to win my first major championship, if you focus so much on the result, if you focus so much on winning, sometimes you can get in your own way. And so I'm trying not to think about winning as much as I am trying to enjoy the challenge that lies ahead,” he said.

“Each shot is going to be very challenging, and each hole will be a difficult par and so forth. And rather than worrying about the result after 72 holes, I'm trying to think about the process of playing the type of golf I want to play.”

Having finally earned his first major, Adam Scott said that going forward, “The hardest thing is going to be curbing the expectations right from the start and just kind of building my way into that position. But it's exciting. I mean, every tournament, I feel, is an opportunity for me now, even more so after winning the Masters, to just build on this.” 

Scott pointed to the career of Ernie Els as ideal.

“He won a couple majors early and just got him in a good place where he could become one of the game's greats or at least a great of this generation.”

However, he added that no one’s career is the same.

“You think you're going to come out and win a few Majors when you're 20 years old because you're good enough to get on Tour. It may happen. Rory did it, but other people didn't,” Scott continued. “Why didn't Sergio win two majors when he was 23? He could have, should have. He had the chance to. It's just impossible to know how it's all going to pan out.”

Justin Rose changed his planning and thinking for majors.

“This year, I've really focused on my preparation and really come into them, really, really focusing on them as trying to peak for them,” he explained. “I think when you're not 100 percent ready to win majors, every week is a big week, but then I feel like you get your game to a point where you're trying to make sure it's ready four times a year.” 

He said he was helped by the pressure of the World Cup and Ryder Cup in 2012.

“I felt a very similar experience there, just the pressure that you face in that environment. That, for me, was more about making putts under pressure, and that was sort of telling myself that I could do that.  And the U.S. Open was about, I guess, hitting golf shots under pressure.”

Lee Westwood, who may now be the best-player-without-a-major, said, "They're supposed to be difficult.”

He said majors are not birdie fests.

“You make a bogey and you feel like you're losing—getting lapped by the field. It's just a case of not following a bogey with another three bogeys in Major championships, limiting the damage and picking up birdies whenever you can,” he added.

Scarcity adds pressure to the struggle on an annual basis.

“There's only four. I mean, you can play 30‑some‑odd events,” Woods said. “The opportunities are more when you play regular events. There's only four of these, and these are always the toughest conditions and also the best fields.”

Then there are the outside forces, which Fred Couples mentioned earlier this season.

“It's just a hard thing to achieve. I mean, when you say you want to do things in golf, it's very hard to do,” he began. “Obviously Tiger wants to win 18 or 19 majors. Phil wants to do this. Vijay wants to—I'm talking about all the greats—Greg Norman was going to do this, and then a guy holes a bunker shot and then a guy holes a chip shot and keeps him from winning three, four, five majors.”

According to four-time major champion Ernie Els, who played the final round at Pebble Beach with Woods when he won the U.S. Open in 2000, sometimes it’s just flat-out good play.

“From the first hole, he started dominating and never let go,” Els said. “I knew I had a chance. I tried to play a solid round of golf, which I did from tee-to-green, but I didn't make too many putts. My thoughts about Tiger, he didn't miss too many shots. I only saw him miss one putt. And he got it up-and-down every time he missed the green. When you have a guy playing like that, you have no chance.”

When asked if Els had played as well at Pebble Beach as he did at Oakmont or at Congressional where he won his first two majors, he said his game was not like it was those two weeks.

“I never felt like I really had it this week,” he said about the 2000 U.S. Open. “When I won my U.S. opens, I felt like the way Tiger felt today, probably.”

McDowell, who won his U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, said, “There's so much talent, so much ability out there. It's just difficult to win. Let alone win Majors.”

One aspect no one mentioned was the right golf course. Jack Nicklaus won six times at Augusta National. He understood the course and how to play it.

The Masters is always on the same course. The rest of the majors may only be seen by golfers once or twice in their careers, and so they lack the familiarity of playing a course like the Blue Monster at Doral or Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill. It’s a new challenge for three of the four championships.

The good shot, the lucky bounce, finding form, the right attitude, scheduling, belief, self-confidence, managing expectations, practicing the pressure, accepting bogey now and then, scarcity, outside forces, understanding there will be great play by others and a course that suits a player’s game—those are 14 key factors that affect who will win a major.

It’s a lot to accept, manage and control. It’s why majors are hard to win.

Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.