Ranking the 10 Best Golfers Yet to Win a Major Championship
Golf, while not the most purely athletic sport in the kinetic pantheon, is the cruelest. For instance, even if a player is really, really, really good and a winner of, say eight tournaments and over $40 million, he will get drawn and quartered on the “best player without a major” table (hereafter referred to as BPWAM).
That’s how mean professional golf is. Once players graduate to a level of competitive relevance, they enter a sort of limbo. They must then win a major to be considered great.
Are we going to sit here and say Shaun Micheel is better than Sergio Garcia? Of course not, but Micheel has one career win: the 2003 PGA Championship1.
This is a dastardly list, and Jason Day was No. 1 on that list until his emphatic and emotional win at Whistling Straits2.
Day said in an Associated Press story (h/t Chicago Sun Times):
It was probably the hardest round of golf I’ve ever had to play. I knew today was going to be tough, but I didn’t realize how tough it was going to be. The experience I’ve had in past majors helped me prepare for a moment like this. I guess you can take me off the `best players without a major’3 now. It’s good to be a major champion.’
It’s the sweetest list to exit, a list Day will never see again, but that just upped the ante for more players good enough to win a major but still lacking one of the Big Four.
A note on criteria: The players must be under 40. Lee Westwood, once one of the players you’d say belongs on this list, has aged out.
Read on for the updated list of best players without a major.
1: An interesting sidebar to this slider: Ranking the 10 Worst/Unaccomplished Players with a Major Championship. Don't run away Ben Curtis!
2: Not gonna lie…tears… How could you not when he was bawling his eyes out just marking his ball for the final, championship putt?
3: Italics mine. This weighs on players.
10. Ian Poulter
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Two
Best Finish in a Major: Runner-up in 2008 Open Championship
Ian Poulter, a winner of two PGA Tour tournaments, is sneaky competitive in the majors. He flies close to the sun and like the son of Daedalus, sees his wings melt sending him down into the depths of the English Channel.
Poulter has the chops to win one of these, especially the Open Championship, the most coveted of all for this English native. Poulter told Simon Bird of Mirror.co.uk:
My mindset doesn’t change, you enter to win it. But the body has changed, picking up niggling little injuries. That’s something I haven’t had in the past so as strong as I am mentally, it gets frustrating. It gets you down, knocks your confidence a bit. But I still feel I have some great golf left in this chassis of mine I just need to get it firing on all cylinders.
Poulter has several top 10s at the majors, and if ever there was one he can win, it’s the Open Championship.
9. Matt Kuchar
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Seven
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for third at 2012 Masters
Matt Kuchar, a fan favorite on the course (Koooooooch!), has come on in recent years with his two best finishes in majors coming at Augusta National Golf Club. He finished in a tie for third in 2012 and in a tie for fifth in 2014.
In 2012 Kuchar won the Players Championship, a tournament often regarded as the fifth major, so you know he’s fully capable of winning high-pressure golf.
If he’s ever going to do it, the Masters looks like the course best suited to his game. His finishes there the past few years have been promising, and he fits the mold of a Masters winner, a very nebulous and subjective metric, but fitting nonetheless.
8. Billy Horschel
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Three
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for fourth in the 2013 U.S. Open
Billy Horchel made waves by criticizing the USGA for its treatment—or lack thereof—of the greens at Chambers Bay, the site of this year's U.S. Open. Horschel nearly smashed his putter into the putting surface, a divot no ball marker this side of Aasgard could remedy.
Outbursts aside, Horschel is the 2014 FedEx Cup champion, where he stared down Rory McIlory, who was on a summer tear beyond compare in 2014.
Prior to this season, Horschel said in Emily Kay’s SB Nation story, "I feel like I'm making the progressions in my game, I'm getting better every year, and ... if I can do the right things and keep sticking to our practice plan and what we're doing on a daily basis, then I feel like a major could be in store for this year."
That didn’t happen in 2015, but he’s showing he can be up at the top of major leader boards, none higher than that tied-for-fourth effort in the 2013 U.S. Open.
7. Hideki Matsuyama
Career Wins on PGA Tour: One
Best Finish in a Major: Fifth in 2015 Masters
At only 23 years of age, it’s amazing what the best Japanese import not called Honda has done on the PGA Tour and in the majors.
Hideki Matsuyama finished fifth in this year’s Masters, four years after his debut at August National where he shared a tie for 27th at the age of 19.
In his first U.S. Open in 2013, he notched his first top 10 and shot a low-round of 67 on Sunday. Naturally he went out and did what all 21-year-olds do after a spectacular achievement.
"He looked at the practice range and said, 'Let's go hit some balls,'" said Matsuyama’s translator Bob Turner in Jason Sobel’s ESPN.com story.
"So he hit and chipped and putted for about two hours that Sunday night," Turner said. "I asked him, 'Aren't you tired?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm tired, but look at this practice range—it's beautiful. I've got to take advantage of this.' He could have gone out and celebrated, but he just loves the game that much."
In 2013 he also earned a share of sixth place at the Open Championship, so clearly this is a young golfer often overlooked by the efforts of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler.
Matsuyama, who knows little English, better learn how to say “green jacket,” “Claret jug” and “Wanamaker” soon.
6. Jimmy Walker
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Five
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for seventh at the 2014 PGA Championship
Jimmy Walker gives all late bloomers on the PGA Tour hope for a better tomorrow. In what other professional sport can you come into your own in your mid-30s? Maybe bowling, or baseball if you have a great chemist behind you.
Walker started winning tournaments in 2014 and he also contended in the majors with three top 10s. He didn’t parlay that into anything resembling competition in 2015, but the game is unmistakably there. His problem is the clock and the insurgence of talent from golfers in their 20s who win majors as if they’re a birthright.
Brandel Chamblee, a golf analyst for Golf Channel and Athlon Sports, wrote this season:
[Walker] is among the longest players off the tee and is now one of the best wedge players, and yet his greatest strength is in his flawless putting technique and ability to handle big moments. These are the attributes that made Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay so dominant, and although Jimmy is a little late coming to the party, he still has four or five years to make up for the time he spent toiling among the middle class on Tour… To continue his climb up the world rankings, he likely has to win one of these events this year — and it would surprise no one if he did.
The real surprise was how poorly he performed in the majors this year (T38, T58, T30, Cut), but that doesn’t mean he can’t get it done. He simply must use his Herculean patience to strike when the time is right.
5. Patrick Reed
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Four
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for 14th at 2015 U.S. Open
Patrick Reed was one of the few golfers who made the cut at all four majors in 2015. He even shared the lead with Jordan Spieth at the U.S. Open, sharing the final pairing on Saturday’s third round.
The spotlight burned a bit bright for this four-time tour winner, but one thing is certain: His game is major-winning caliber.
In all seriousness, Reed could probably benefit from a better fitness program. That would, in all likelihood, grant him better stamina and strength on the golf course. Every golfer who wins majors seem to have a 32-inch waist line. Reed decidedly does not.
"I only played my first majors [in 2013] but I was able to see what they were like,” Reed said in a Reuters story (h/t EuroSport.com). "I made just two cuts, but on the Sunday I wasn't even a factor. I just want to keep improving, and have a chance coming down the stretch on a Sunday to at least make some noise at a major."
His play in the Ryder Cup and the mere fact that he won four tournaments by the age of 24 speak volumes for this—some will say—loud mouth.
4. Sergio Garcia
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Eight
Best Finish in a Major: Second or Tied for Second in 1999 PGA Championship, 2007 Open Championship, 2008 PGA Championship and 2014 Open Championship
Sergio Garcia has the most runner-ups in the majors on this list with four, and they span the greatest distance too: 16 years.
Ever since he scissor-kicked his way to a runner-up in the 1999 PGA Championship (won by Tiger Woods), he seemed like the young rival to Woods. Garcia subsequently won only eight tournaments on the PGA Tour and Woods amassed 79 (!).
Garcia’s 2002 jaunt through the majors saw him finish inside the top 10 in all four. The Spaniard always manages to contend in at least one major every year, performing especially well in the Open Championship, a tournament he has nine top 10s in since 1999.
Gary Van Sickel said of Garcia in a Golf.com roundtable:
I wouldn't give up on Sergio just yet. He's putting a lot better with the claw grip, at least Thursday through Saturday, and his short game has never been better. His tee-to-green play was worse than usual, though, so the fact that he nearly won despite struggling with his swing is a good sign. He'll straighten out his tee-to-green game, don't worry, but the big question remains whether he can make clutch putts on the final nine…
The most likely place Garcia will a major is in the U.K., but until then, he’ll be a chronic top five BPWAM.
3. Rickie Fowler
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Two
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for Second at the 2014 U.S. Open and Open Championship
Rickie Fowler’s 2014 was overshadowed only because Rory McIlroy won two majors. Otherwise Fowler finishing in the top five in all four majors would have turned the color of golf a different shade of orange.
It was good medicine for Fowler to win the 2015 Players Championship in a playoff—golf’s unofficial fifth major—to prove he can, in fact, stand victorious on a major-caliber stage.
“There’s a difference between a top five and getting the job done and being the guy last standing holding the trophy at the end,” Fowler said in George Willis' New York Post story. “I definitely feel like the win at the Players was kind of the next step to holding the trophy at a major.”
This year was a step indeed, a step backward since he didn’t fare better than a tie for 12th, that at the Masters.
There’s a Mt. Rushmore of golf's youth, and the faces on that mountain (until it’s demolished and strip mined for coal) are McIlroy, Spieth, Day and, yes, Fowler. The only difference is those three own seven majors between them, and Fowler, well, you know...
2. Dustin Johnson
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Nine
Best Finish in a Major: Tied for second at the 2011 Open Champion and the 2015 U.S. Open
With nine career wins and at least one in eight straight years, there’s no denying Dustin Johnson’s titanic ability on the golf course. If his course management was half as good as his drives, he’d have a few majors won, and we’d be talking about his status as a Hall of Famer, not a BPWAM.
At one point or another, Johnson had the lead/share of the lead in the last three majors of 2015. There was the infamous three-putt at Chambers Bay and the flippant too-slow-to-mark-his-ball at St. Andrews. And there was the Sunday snowman to open his Sunday round at Whistling Straits1.
USA Today’s Christine Brennan writes, “The statistics are telling: In his previous six majors, Johnson was a total of 35-under par in the first two rounds. But then he fell apart, shooting a cumulative 6-over par in the final two rounds.”
It’s these reasons that Johnson could be the greatest single talent never to win a major by the time his career is over. There isn’t enough mental acuity to drill down in crunch time. And the more of these Sasquatch-ian early round efforts he strings together and then watch come undone, the more unlikely it is he’ll be holding up more than a scorer’s pencil on Sunday.
1: Let’s not forget blading his wedge in a stealth bunker that cost him a shot at the 2010 PGA Championship playoff.
1. Henrik Stenson
Career Wins on PGA Tour: Four
Best Finish in a Major: Runner-up at the 2013 Open Championship
Before 2015, Henrik Stenson was the ultimate BPWAM, and that still holds true now.
He’s had one of the greater runs in the majors over the past nine years, and his age puts him right in the Desperation Window so despised by all of the BPWAMs who came before him (Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Harry Cooper, among others).
Stenson is a lukewarm No. 1 because he’s not the outright best player on this list, but his eight top fives in majors since 2008 are the type of finishes that hang over a player.
Golf.com’s Gary Van Sickle wrote of Stenson prior to this year’s Masters, “You’ve got to credit a guy who won the FedEx Cup and the Race To Dubai in the same year. He was in the mix at the last two PGA Championships, and he’s got a second and two thirds at the British Open.”
Stenson also won the Players in 2009, so while he finished no better than a tie for 19th (Masters) in any of the majors in 2015, he still gets high marks as the best player (gulp) without a major.
When he gets one, it will likely be an Open Championship. The clock, as they say, is ticking.
All stats come courtesy of PGATour.com.