News & Opinion

Focus shifts to Fowler as top majorless player

It’s time to pass the monkey. Sergio Garcia won a Masters this spring despite a couple of iffy putting strokes on the last three holes of regulation, but who cares when you’re wearing a green jacket?

So, entering this week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, we must pass the title of Best Player Who Hasn’t Won a Major Yet to someone else. Garcia was a solid No. 1 and had carried that monkey on his back for a long ride.

Who’s next? Well, given the number of recent first-time major-winners (six in a row, and counting; seven of the past nine), let’s look at the new world (majorless) order. 

My rankings are based loosely on who among the great unwashed is playing the best, so it’s not a career-achievement award. (Sorry, Monty.) Nor is it a tag to bestow prematurely, so a player must appear in a dozen majors before I consider him. (Sorry, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm.)

Here are my top five, in reverse order. Provide your own fanfare for the countdown:

5. Patrick Reed. He’s got only one win since early 2015 and, except for Ryder Cups, has been kind of quiet for a “top-five-in-the-world” kind of player. We should be patient, even if he often isn’t. At 26, he has played only 13 majors. Plenty of time left.

4. Matt Kuchar. The man who will turn 39 next week has been playing some of his best golf – third in the Olympics, fourth in the Masters. He excels at top 10s. In fact, he’s got the Top Ten Slam: top-10 finishes in all four majors. Is he really supposed to win a major? He owns seven PGA Tour titles, not quite Hall of Fame stuff. But he’s steady, and that counts for something. 

3. Hideki Matsuyama. He’s early on this list at 25, but that’s the kind of best-ever-player-from-Japan potential he has with four PGA Tour wins. He has teed up in only 18 majors, but he’s got game and making this list is really about identifying the majorless players who possess the ability to do great things. He’s already a rock star in his home country. A major would make him even bigger – like, what, a prime minister or something?

2. Lee Westwood. Give credit to Westwood, 44, for staying relevant. Only Colin Montgomerie has a bigger resume in the career-achievement category among the modern majorless. Westwood tied for second in last year’s Masters and was in the penultimate pairing at Oakmont last summer. His nine top-three showings in majors include some heartbreakers. He can blame his chipping or putting for most of them, but as Garcia showed, you can ball-strike your way to a major title if you get a little help. Westy marches on.

1. Rickie Fowler. The rule of majors indicates you’ve got to get knocked down in a few, or maybe a few dozen, before you win one. See Garcia for details. It’s still springtime in the career of Fowler, only 28, who has played 29 majors. He had an impressive 2014 when he placed fifth or better in all four majors – quite a run – but he didn’t sustain it. Fowler had a disappointing Sunday this year in Augusta when he and Jordan Spieth went surprisingly south in the penultimate Masters pairing. His ballstriking faltered, but on the positive side, Fowler’s short game looked as sharp as anyone’s – he just needed not to have to use it so often. Garcia’s departure makes Fowler the default No. 1. So, this title is no hardship yet, not something Fowler will even notice. Maybe in Augusta he learned what he needed to learn. Time is on his side.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle