Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy are locks for induction, but drill deeper into today’s top performers and it’s not so clear
There were two reasons why Hideki Matsuyama won the recent Masters Tournament.
One, he played better golf than anyone. Two, the game’s top players, some of them future World Golf Hall of Famers, failed to rise to the occasion. Don’t get the wrong idea; Matsuyama beat some very good players to earn the right to slip his arms into the green jacket. But suppose world No. 1 Dustin Johnson had begun the final round one shot behind Matsuyama? What if four-time major champion Rory McIlroy had been hot on Matsuyama’s heels? Or a healthy Brooks Koepka? Or, in a moment of wishful thinking, Tiger Woods?
We’ll never know. Johnson, McIlroy and Koepka missed the cut, and Woods unfortunately missed a turn. Matsuyama was the class of the 2021 Masters. The victory sealed his place as Japan’s greatest golfer, even if he owns 100-plus fewer victories than Hall of Fame member Jumbo Ozaki. As the first Japanese player to win a men’s major championship, Matsuyama just jumped to the head of the class. Ozaki has the numbers but Matsuyama has the major. Game over.
Is Matsuyama destined to join the World Golf Hall of Fame alongside Ozaki? The Masters victory helped lay a great foundation toward that goal. Matsuyama has 14 wins on the PGA, European and Japan golf tours, including some pretty good ones. He won World Golf Championships in China and Akron, Ohio, the latter with a scorching round of 61. He won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in back-to-back years and captured the Memorial Tournament, one of the best PGA Tour stops that isn’t a major. He won the Casio World Open and the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, two biggies, and he won the unofficial Hero World Challenge, an off-season event hosted by Woods.
That’s a strong resume. At only 29, Matsuyama presumably will win many more titles. A handful more wins might be enough for hall admission. One more major championship might even be enough.
Matsuyama’s rise raises the question: Just how many future Hall of Famers are we watching in the game?
Among active players, here’s my Hall of Fame outlook based on what the players have done so far:
Tiger Woods. The Hall of Fame changed its minimum age requirement to 50 the year before Woods would’ve been eligible or he would already be inducted with his contemporaries such as Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. With 15 major titles and 82 wins, his choice doesn’t need discussion. Prediction: A dead-solid lock. A Zurich.
Dustin Johnson. He’s got a Masters and a U.S. Open among his 24 PGA Tour wins and he’s scored a win in 13 straight seasons, a feat exceeded only by Jack Nicklaus (17 years in a row) and Woods (14). Johnson was probably a lock once he finally landed the big one in 2016, the U.S. Open at Oakmont, but last November’s Masters win definitely punched his ticket. Prediction: Slam dunk (which he used to be able to do barefoot, and maybe still can).
Rory McIlroy. He turns 32 in May, but he’s a Hall of Famer already despite having not won a major championship in nearly seven years. When he won that PGA Championship in near-darkness at Valhalla in 2014, his fourth major title, no one expected that to be his last major victory. And it may not be, but he’s in a slump and reached a low point when he missed the cut at the recent Masters. He has won the Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson award three times each, the FedEx Cup twice and the Race to Dubai three times. Prediction: A unanimous choice (and not even Babe Ruth entered the Baseball Hall of Fame as a unanimous selection).
Brooks Koepka. In three years, Koepka piled up four major victories in impressive fashion, winning back-to-back U.S. Opens (last accomplished by Curtis Strange in 1988-89) and back-to-back PGA Championships, becoming the first golfer to hold back-to-back major titles at the same time. No, not even Woods pulled that off. Koepka turns 31 next month and is kind of a curiosity. He has as many major titles, four, as he has regular PGA Tour titles. He is a big-game hunter whose focus gears up for the biggest events. Would a player with only eight PGA Tour wins get into the hall – assuming he were to win no more tournaments, an unlikely assumption unless his knee problems persist? If four of them are majors, that’s a game-changer because that gives him three more major titles than Hall of Famers such as Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Ian Woosnam, to name a few. Prediction: Highly probable. Plus, if the answer is no, who’s going to tell him?
Jordan Spieth. This isn’t as easy as you might think. Two major championships ought to get you into the hall, right? Ask Andy North and John Daly how that worked out. But Spieth has three majors among 12 PGA Tour victories and is only 27. He’s coming out of a slump and appears to be getting closer to the form he had in 2015 when he chased the third leg of the Grand Slam to the 72nd hole of the British Open at St. Andrews. It’s hard to believe he isn’t going to pile up more victories. It’s also hard to believe he’s not going to win another Masters. He’s got a win, two seconds and two thirds. Augusta National is right up his alley. But let’s say he doesn’t win anything ever again. That would mean he landed his third and final major, the British Open at Royal Birkdale, at age 24. Would he be looked at as a great champion or a very good player who had a three-year hot streak? I’d invoke the Larry Nelson rule: three majors and you’re in the hall. It took awhile before Nelson finally got inducted with his three majors and 10 total wins. Spieth has three and 12, respectively. Prediction: Highly probable. Don’t mess with Texas.
Lee Westwood. No one has embodied The Nearly Man more than England’s affable Westwood. He achieved the rare Third-Place Slam, finishing third in each of the majors. His 19 top-10 finishes in majors include three runners-up and sixth thirds. Westwood has been all over the majors like drool on a bulldog. You can’t overlook 44 worldwide victories, including 25 on the European Tour, however, despite winning only twice on the PGA Tour. He’s a Ryder Cup warhorse who is likely to break Europe’s all-time appearance marks this September if he makes the team. In addition, he’s got the longevity factor. He was the European Tour’s Golfer Of the Year in 1998, 2000, 2009 and … 2020!. That’s a Nicklaus-esqe 22-year spread. Colin Montgomerie made the hall with a major-less record not equal to Westwood’s. Prediction: Probable. No major, no matter in this case.
Henrik Stenson. The lanky Swede has looked like a world-beater at times, notably with his 2009 Players Championship win and his 2016 British Open, when his final-round 63 at Royal Troon outdueled Mickelson. He won only that one major, although he had 13 other top-10 in majors; six PGA Tour victories and nine European Tour victories. It was a career that just about any player would love to have. Is he hall material? On this subject, some experts like to ask, “Can you tell the story of golf during this time without discussing him?” Tough call. Prediction: Doubtful. But he is Sweden’s second most important golfer … behind Annika Sorenstam.
Sergio Garcia. We’ve heard for years from the experts that Garcia ranks among his era’s pre-eminent ball-strikers. No argument there. The problem is, he won 11 times on the PGA Tour, 15 times in Europe and snagged only one major, the 2017 Masters. In some ways, he is an underachiever, despite a good record. The putter and, at times, his attitude held him back. He was 6-6 in PGA Tour playoffs; four or five more wins might make a difference. Garcia played in nine Ryder Cups and was a key reason why Europe won six of them. It was ironic that his one major victory came at the Masters, the major he complained most about and seemed destined never to win because of his sub-par putting. Prediction: Questionable, but his longevity, his 23 top-10s in majors and Ryder Cup heroics might push his candidacy over the edge.
Justin Rose. Shades of Westwood. Should you get bonus points for coming close a lot, or is that a sign of weakness? Rose has 18 top-10s in majors, 10 of them top-5s. He won 10 PGA Tour events, including the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, but had heartbreaking playoff losses at the Masters, Memorial and BMW. He also won eight times in Europe. Twenty-three years after placing fourth in the British Open as an amateur, Rose is still going strong. He had the first-round lead at last week’s Masters and fought all the way to the finish. Longevity matters. Rose, who turns 41 this summer, played in five Ryder Cups. A second major would ice his nomination, wouldn’t it? Prediction: Possible. Golf begins at 40, if you ask Vijay Singh or Steve Stricker.
Ian Poulter. No majors, but the man known as The Postman delivers mostly in the Ryder Cup. His biggest wins are two World Golf Championships: the Match Play and the HSBC Champions in China. He hasn’t come all that close too often in the majors – a second and a third in the British Open and a third at the PGA. He’s a Ryder Cup legend, however. Europe is 5-1 in Poulter’s appearances. Prediction: Doubtful. He is a legend in his own mind, which isn’t a bad thing.
Bubba Watson. The artist born as Gerry Lester Watson Jr. won a pair of Masters with his unique swing and shot-making style. He won 10 other times on the PGA Tour, but he’s a courses-for-horses guy. Eight of his 12 wins came in three events: Masters (2), Genesis Invitational (3) and Travelers Championship (3). A few more wins might make his case stronger, but at 42, that might be a stretch. His best finish in the British Open is 23rd; his best showing in the Players Championship is 37th. Prediction: Doubtful, but in his case, the nomination is the award.
Adam Scott. This Aussie is the classic borderline call between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Very, Very Good. He won a Masters, 13 other PGA Tour events, eight on the European Tour and assorted Austral-Asian tournaments. Scott has 19 top-10 major finishes, including two seconds and three thirds, yet outside of that 2012 British Open that he lost to Ernie Els by making bogey on the final four holes at Royal Lytham, it’s difficult to remember him seriously threatening to win. I remember that Open because I had a few hundred euros on him to win at 27-1 odds (but I’m not bitter … much). Scott ranks among the nicest and most popular players of his era. But among the very, very best? Prediction: Questionable, although he does lead Greg Norman in Masters won, 1-0.
Zach Johnson. He was a somewhat surprising Masters champion and British Open winner, surviving a three-man playoff in the latter. Short off the tee, he made up for that with steely determination, good iron play and a great short game. He was not an overachiever. That suggests he was somehow not good enough to win. Johnson was simply an achiever who often came through in pressure situations. Two majors among 12 PGA Tour victories? Pretty good. Can you tell the story of golf in the 2000s without discussing him? Uh … yeah. His 10 non-major wins came in tournaments that mostly were not top-tier events. Here’s the list of players who finished runner-up to Johnson in those 10: Mark Hensby; Ryuji Imada; Charlie Wi; Tim Wilkinson; Mark Wilson; James Driscoll; Brian Davis; Jason Dufner; Troy Matteson; Adam Scott; David Toms; Nick Watney; Jordan Spieth. I wouldn’t be upset if Johnson were voted in, but will he be? Prediction: Questionable. At least he’s already in the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame, so pass the corn.
Rickie Fowler. No majors, but he did invent the color orange. Prediction: Nope.
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