COMMENTARY | Adam Scott vanquished his own inner demons and years of Australian disappointment with a Masters win for the ages this past Sunday. Scott's victory at Augusta National also knocked him off the ignominious list of best players to have never won a major.
Why do we obsess so much about major championships? What makes the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship so vital to the resume of a professional golfer?
The short answer: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Every pro of the last two generations has measured their accomplishments against these two.
The grand slam events are the ones most watched by casual golf fans. And they tend to deliver the sport's most dramatic moments, most recently Angel Cabrera following Scott's 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole of regulation with a three-footer of his own to force a playoff eventually won by the Aussie.
Winning a major validates everything else a golfer has accomplished. And it ends the mental suffering and media questioning that now rise a notch for the following five players, who top my updated list of the best without a major.
The 33-year-old Spaniard does not possess the best numbers on this list. But he makes up for it by the sheer ferocity of his close calls. No one since Phil Mickelson has experienced the agony of defeat quite like Sergio.
This year's Masters added more scar tissue for a player seemingly resigned to never winning a major. Garcia opened the tournament with a sterling 6-under-par 66 but followed that up with a 76 that included three balls in the water on the back nine. A solid final round earned Sergio a tie for eighth place - his 18th top 10 finish in 58 majors without bringing home a trophy.
Garcia first contended for a grand slam title at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he hit a memorable shot off a tree root in pursuit of Woods. He came bitterly close at the 2007 British and 2008 PGA, losing both times to Padraig Harrington.
Garcia admitted at the Masters that the pressure of falling short often weighs on him, "Sometimes I do feel like there is such a thing as being too‑‑ you know, too hyper about something. You've still got to keep calm."
Garcia's best chance to break through should come at the British Open or at a PGA Championship contested over a classic course (as opposed to the links style and modern designs now in the rotation). He won the 1998 British Amateur at Muirfield, site of this year's British Open, and finished T8 in the last Open played there in 2002.
Westwood tied for eighth with Garcia at the just concluded Masters, marking his 60th grand slam appearance without a victory. The Englishman turns 40 next week and you have to start wondering if he's destined to follow in the footsteps of fellow Brit Colin Montgomerie, who previously set the standard for major championship futility.
Westwood was outplayed by Tiger Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open and Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters. He has a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time. Westwood has four top 10s at the British Open but I'm surprised he hasn't contended there more often.
The gripe against Westwood has always been his short game. There he was on the ninth hole at Augusta Sunday, mishitting a pitch onto the severely sloped green and watching the ball trickle back to him. As I wrote earlier this year, Westy has been through several instructors in his quest to shore up the short game.
I'm encouraged that Westwood has committed to playing more on the PGA Tour. He now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida which should serve him well in the U.S. majors, especially the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, which are played mostly on tree-lined courses with much thicker rough and faster greens than the tracks on the European Tour.
Those two tournaments play best to Westwood's strengths as a ball striker. He just needs one week of unconscious putting to get the major monkey off his back.
DJ is the youngest player on my list and has had the fewest chances (17) to claim a major but he rates high because of his near misses and the most PGA Tour wins (seven) among the under 30 set.
In 2010, Johnson held the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open and led the PGA Championship with one hole to play. At the Open at Pebble Beach, where he had already one two AT&T National Pro Am titles, DJ went triple-bogey, double-bogey on the second and third holes and never recovered.
More infamous was his final round at Whistling Straits, where he grounded his club in what was determined to be a bunker in the middle of the gallery on the 18th hole, generating a two-stroke penalty that knocked him out of a playoff eventually won by Martin Kaymer.
DJ also played in the final pairing with eventual winner Darren Clarke at the 2011 British Open but a shot out of bounds on the closing stretch foiled his chances.
Johnson led last week's Masters through 13 holes of the second round but unraveled after a chunked chip into the water on the par-5 15th hole. For all his power and talent, it's these sloppy stretches that have me scratching my head about how Johnson will acquire the precision and consistency to finally nail down a grand slam title.
Despite a disappointing finish, DJ posted his best ever finish at Augusta. I think it's an encouraging sign of good things to come at a major situated just an hour from his hometown of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He just needs more reps.
"This golf course, it sets up really well for me,'' Johnson said during the Masters. "I love the shape of all the holes.
"It's just a tough golf course to figure out like where to hit it, and using slopes, and then certain putts you have, what they are doing, is very tough. Like I said, you learn something new around here every day you play it."
Stricker is the most perplexing member of this list. Regarded as one of the best putters in the game, he would seem to be a shoo-in to run the table on the slick greens at a U.S. Open.
Not only has Stricker not won a grand slam event, he has hardly ever been in the mix on Sunday. In a career resurgence that has seen him win eight times on the PGA Tour in the last five seasons, the pride of Wisconsin has notched only two top 10s in majors.
At the 2011 PGA Championship, which he led after a first-round 63, Stricker said he tries to downplay the majors more than he did earlier in his career. "Try tricking yourself into thinking that there's really nothing extra or different about this event. But knowing deep down that there is," Stricker said. "That's the trick. And really that's the way I've played the last three or four years."
The carefree attitude hasn't paid dividends but maybe a reduced schedule will do the trick. Stricker, 46, plans to play in just 11 tournaments this year to spend more time with his family. So far so good as he's netted two seconds, a fifth and a T20 in four of his five 2013 starts.
Stricker has historically played his best golf in the heat of the summer so I see the PGA Championship as his best chance to snap an 0-for-58 grand slam drought. It also doesn't hurt that the PGA is the major most similar to a regular PGA Tour event.
I debated whether to include Donald or Justin Rose on the list and opted for the 35-year-old Donald since he's a former world No. 1 and probably has a smaller window of opportunity in majors.
Like Stricker, Donald has a short game tailor made for majors. He's led the PGA Tour in putting three of the last four seasons and was third in the other. And he's been consistently excellent since the start of 2009. But over that stretch, he has more missed cuts in majors (five) than top 10s (four).
Donald and Westwood are the only players ever to hold the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking without a major title. What this tells me is that the OWGR formula needs to be tweaked and that Donald needs to step up to be considered one of the leading golfers of his generation.
The U.S. Open, with its demand for precision over power, seems the surest grand slam bet for Donald but surprisingly he's done best at the Masters. With the pressure of being No. 1 now gone, he needs to take a page out of Adam Scott's book and learn how to peak for majors.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the New York Post, FoxSports.com, Greensboro News & Record, and Burlington (N.C.) Times-News. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.
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