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Golf

With Lefty in the club, who's best of the rest?

The greatest player never to win a major is up for debate. And what better time to discuss it than U.S. Open week.

By BOB HARIG
Published June 13, 2004

It used to be so easy. To identify the best golfer without a major championship wasn't even a contest. Oh, an occasional challenger would emerge, then just as quickly dismiss himself by capturing one of the four Grand Slam events.

As the years passed and his regular victories piled up, the (dis-) honor became his and his alone. Phil Mickelson had millions of dollars. He had a plane. He had the admiration of peers.

But he didn't have a major.

Mickelson joyfully surrendered the distinction with his stirring Masters victory in April, birdieing five of the last seven holes at Augusta National to surge past Ernie Els for his first major championship. The euphoria might not have worn off yet.

This week, the left-hander will go for two in a row at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., site of the 104th U.S. Open. In 1995, when he was just 25 and emerging as one of the game's stars, Mickelson saw one of several chances to win a major slip away with a couple of back-nine blunders at Shinnecock, where he tied for fourth.

That week, Corey Pavin shed the "best to never win a major" label.

Which begs the question: Who takes over for Mickelson? No simple answer awaits. In fact, you have to divide players into categories to consider who might be the best player without a major today.

World ranking

Padraig Harrington. The Irish star is the highest-ranked player in the world without a major at No. 8. But he is slowly turning into the European version of Davis Love, which means he finishes second more often than he wins. He had another runnerup recently in Germany. But Harrington, who has eight European PGA Tour wins, is a seasoned major-championship performer, finishing in the top 10 six times, including each of the past two U.S. Opens.

Chad Campbell. Though he just turned 30, Campbell is still considered a youngster by golf standards. He is in just his third full season on the PGA Tour, and many consider him a star-in-the-making. Campbell won last year's Tour Championship and the Bay Hill Invitational in March. He is ranked 10th, and he finished second to Shaun Micheel at last year's PGA. Campbell has missed three of four cuts at the U.S. Open, however, his best finish a tie for 35th last year.

Stuart Appleby. Before he is expected to win majors, he should be expected to win more, period. He won the season-opening Mercedes Championship this year, his fifth career PGA Tour victory. He has won other tournaments in his native Australia and he has reached 11th in the world. But other than losing the 2002 British Open in a four-man playoff to Els, Appleby has not been much of a major performer, missing nearly as many cuts as he has made.

Kenny Perry. An incredible 2003 season put Perry in this position. He had just four career victories before winning three times last year. He finished in the top 10 at three majors. He's on the verge of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And he's ranked 12th. Perry is 43 and enjoying life. A major wouldn't lift a burden but would top a career.

Darren Clarke. If you had to a pick a player to take over the "nonmajor" label from Mickelson, Northern Ireland's Clarke might be the best candidate. He is the only player other than Tiger Woods to win two World Golf Championship events. He is ranked 15th. He has five top 10s in majors, including two top threes at the British Open, and 10 European tour wins. He has the best combination of talent and experience among the European contingent, and has been among Europe's top 10 in the Order of Merit (including second last year) in seven of the past eight seasons. Clarke likely will be among the favorites at Royal Troon next month, where he finished second to Justin Leonard in 1997.

Young guns

Sergio Garcia. Destined for stardom ever since he stared down Woods and nearly beat him as a 19-year-old rookie at the 1999 PGA Championship, Garcia only recently captured his fourth PGA Tour title at the Byron Nelson Classic. Despite top 10s in all the majors in 2002, Garcia, 24, overhauled his swing. Fourth in the world at the time, the Spaniard didn't think his swing would hold up over his career. Now he has climbed back to 17th. If he ever gets his putting to come around, he will be a force in the majors.

Adam Scott. NBC's Johnny Miller said Scott's swing was the envy of Woods, because his swing now is what Woods' was a few years ago. Scott won the Players Championship and was the talk of golf. Then he missed the cut in Atlanta and at the Masters, proving that there is a lot more for this Aussie to master. Ranked 14th, Scott, 24, figures to be a force in the majors.

Paul Casey. The highest-ranked Englishman at No. 27, Casey likely will become the hope of golf-starved Brits. He was in contention this year in his first Masters but has not fared well in the other majors. Casey, 26, finished sixth in Europe last year and likely will make the Ryder Cup team, but he probably needs a few more victories to be considered among the best without a major.

Charles Howell. The likable, long-hitting player from Georgia needs to start winning any tournament, let alone majors. Despite tons of promise, Howell, 24, still has just one PGA Tour victory.

Total victories

John Cook and Scott Hoch have the most victories among active players with 11, but both are in their late 40s and closer to the Champions Tour than winning a major. Same for Jay Haas, who at 50 is playing some of the best golf of his career. And then there is Colin Montgomerie. Europe's No. 1 for seven straight years, for a time he was neck and neck with Mickelson for the "best-without-a-major" tag. He has 28 European tour wins (Mickelson had 22 on the PGA Tour before winning the Masters) but has struggled over the past year and fallen out of the top 50 in the world. Monty, however, won't even be at the Open.

[Last modified June 12, 2004, 23:37:23]


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