Recent History Points to Breakthrough Winner at Pinehurst
By Dave Shedloski
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – The U.S. Open has lived up to its billing as truly open, at least when it comes to providing a chance for a breakthrough major-championship winner.
The last five men to capture the U.S. Open Trophy, and 10 of the last 14 dating to 2000, registered their first major title in America’s national championship. So perhaps there’s more than a glimmer of hope for a host of players seeking to break their major maiden, regardless of how difficult Pinehurst No. 2 proves to be this week.
The list of accomplished players without a major title begins with a group of veterans who have appeared in the greatest number of them, led by the star-crossed Englishman Lee Westwood. A former No. 1 player in the world, Westwood is making his 65th major-championship start this week. He owns the ignominious distinction of finishing in the top three eight times in majors without a win, which is a record.
Close on Westwood’s heels are Miguel Angel Jimenez, Sergio Garcia and Steve Stricker, who arrive at Pinehurst with 63, 62 and 61 major starts, respectively.
“I’ve knocked on the door a lot, which means I must be doing something right,” said Westwood, who has finished in the top 25 in the last six U.S. Opens and has a pair of top-three finishes in that span (2008, 2011). “The thing about the U.S. Open is that it’s very hard, and you have to accept that you’re going to make some bogeys. You have to hit good shots and have the patience for the bad ones that might actually also be pretty good in other circumstances. I think I’ve been very patient over the years.”
Indeed, he could say that about his play in the U.S. Open and other tournaments.
Other top players who might be in the club of “best player yet to win a major” would have to include 1997 U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar, PGA Tour FedExCup champions Henrik Stenson (the No. 2 player in the world), Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas, and Dustin Johnson, who perhaps should have won two majors in 2010 but for final-round hiccups at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
“I think I’m still new to that. I think it’s great,” said Kuchar, who had a shot in the Masters Tournament before Bubba Watson took control for his second green jacket. “If you haven't won a major, you sure want to be a part of that conversation. I'm happy I'm part of that conversation. But certainly it's a goal of mine. It’s a goal of everybody’s. It’s been a goal of mine since I started playing the game. So it remains there.”
Of course, once the years advance and the major losses pile up, a player can start to press too much.
Phil Mickelson, who needs a U.S. Open title to complete the career Grand Slam, addressed the issue of wanting to win too much and how he tried to channel that energy into performance.
“I wanted the Masters and my first major awfully bad. I also wanted a British Open awfully bad,” said Mickelson, who broke through for his first British Open victory last year at Muirfield, Scotland. “You’re able to just kind of get control of your thoughts that we were talking about and be patient with it.”
Kuchar said his approach to a major is no different than any other tournament.
“I treat every tournament as a tournament I want to win,” said the 35-year-old Georgia resident, whose best U.S. Open showing was a tie for sixth in 2010. “We all certainly put a little more meaning toward these major championships, but I show up to the Muirfield tournament [the Memorial, at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio] two weeks ago with all intents to try to win that tournament. I come to U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst with the same intentions [as] Muirfield.”
“They’re coming into that age where they’ve got the experience, they’ve had a couple of chances, they’ve won tournaments,” said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who now provides commentary for ESPN, referring to the group of American players looking for their big break, players like Kuchar, Haas and Johnson. “They’ve won all the money they could ever spend. So now the next step is really up the ante and win something like this.”
For Westwood, 41, Stricker, 47, and Jimenez, 50, the sand is definitely draining from their competitive hourglasses.
“I’d like to win one before I’m finished,” said Stricker, who is making his 19th U.S. Open start this week and has four top-10 finishes, including a tie for eighth last year at Merion Golf Club. “I know I still have enough game, but the question becomes whether you can put it all together for that one week. I’ve had my chances, but I don’t know how many more I’m going to get, and the one thing we all want to do is be able to say we climbed that mountain at least once.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.