Nobody had Zach Johnson penciled in on the list of the game’s best players who hadn’t won a major. Now that he’s won the Masters, he’ll never make the list.
Even though his Masters victory doesn’t change much, I think it’s time to take an updated look at the best players without a major championship on their resumes. And when I say best, I’m talking about who’s playing the best current golf, not who’s had the best career. This is “Who’s Hot Among Who Hasn’t,” got it? Let the countdown begin:
10. Colin Montgomerie A sentimental choice. Just when you think his best years are behind him, he turns into Superman every two years at the Ryder Cup. Monty slipped to 21st on the Order of Merit last year, but he has won a European Tour event in each of the past three seasons. He showed last year at Winged Foot that he can still contend. If not for Phil Mickelson’s Titanic-like sinking, we’d still be talking about Monty’s collapse, which was actually worse. At least Mickelson made double bogey from the trees in the left rough. Monty made double bogey from the middle of the fairway with a 7-iron in his hand. He would be the first to say it was inexcusable. Even though his fumble was the nightmare of a lifetime, it showed he could still sneak in there. Monty as sentimental underdog? I’m afraid so.
9. Charles Howell Young Charles came back from his struggles last year a better and smarter player. An addicted range-ball pounder, he’s figured something out — golf is all about scoring, and that’s all about the short game from 120 yards and in. That’s where he has focused his energies, and his improved putting was a big reason he beat Mickelson at Riviera in a playoff this year. He’s got a ways to go before he’s ready to master Augusta National’s greens — he finished a respectable 30th this year — but at a tournament where ballstriking is at a premium, such as U.S. Open or PGA Championship, he can pull it off.
8. Rory Sabbatini This guy has a terrific game. It’s remarkable he doesn’t get more attention. Maybe it’s because he’s racked up only three PGA Tour victories in the last seven years, two of them in tournaments that are now defunct. He’s better known for being the guy who put the spotlight on slow-playing Ben Crane a few years ago than as the ’06 Nissan Open champion. His runner-up finish to Johnson at the Masters is a reminder of Sabbatini’s potential. His knack for birdies and his aggressive style are well-suited to Augusta National (well, most years) and perhaps a British Open.
7. Stephen Ames Tough break, Commissioner Finchem. I’m not counting Stephen’s Players Championship victory as a major. Keep trying, though. Ames is a steady ball-striker who seems like U.S. Open material. His final-round at Sawgrass remains one of the best rounds of the last few years. He’s a wild card. The best thing about him is his personality — he’s got enough ego that he knows he can win anything. In golf, that’s a plus.
6. Stuart Appleby He hasn’t been Mr. Consistent or Sir Closer during his career, but when he’s on, he looks unbeatable. If anything, he comes off as a little too mechanical — too much thinking. He had a chance to win in Houston and made some shaky strokes with his putter on the closing holes. Then, when Adam Scott handed him the tournament by driving into the water on 18, he handed it back by yanking his fairway bunker shot into the water. He hung tough for four days at Augusta. But, playing in the last group Sunday with Woods, he made an ugly double bogey on the opening hole. His record in majors is not good. He was in that four-man playoff at the British Open, won by Ernie Els. Is he tough enough mentally to win a major? That’s what he has to prove.
5. Sergio Garcia Though he ranks 14th in the world, Garcia has slipped to being only the fifth-highest-ranking European player. While he struggles with his putting under pressure, he’s getting passed in the fast lane by Europe’s other young guns. He’s a little like Charles Howell in that his short game doesn’t measure up to his long game. Tee to green, Sergio can hang with just about anyone. On the greens, he’s getting killed. Until he finds an answer, he’s going to keep slip-sliding away. Not that he’s doing poorly. He’s had three top-10 finishes this year already. But it’s been almost two years (2005 Booz Allen Classic) since his last win.
4. Paul Casey Casey has become a force in Europe. He was nipped by Padraig Harrington for last year’s Order of Merit title. He won three times on the European Tour last year and nabbed another victory earlier this year when he won at Abu Dhabi, so he knows how to win. Yet, he was in contention at Bay Hill and shot 73-74 on the weekend, 13 shots worse than winner Vijay Singh. He rallied from an opening 79 at Augusta and finished tied for 10th. He’s getting closer to his potential.
3. Padraig Harrington A cerebral player, and a slow one, Harrington made another nice showing in a major with his tie for seventh at the Masters. He had a chance to make a run on Sunday until he hit into the pond at the 15th hole. He plays consistently well, and he putts well. There’s no reason he shouldn’t win a major one of these days.
2. Henrik Stenson He was officially proclaimed the next big thing after his win at the Accenture World Match Play. He’s got the length, he’s got the short game, he’s got the putting. He has quickly risen to No. 6 in the world rankings and has done it in impressive fashion with five wins in Europe, including this year at Dubai. He’s relatively inexperienced in majors, but he comes from a brash generation that believes shotmaking is more important than experience. Plus, he is known to crack jokes. What’s not to like? He tied for 17th at Augusta. What to watch in May: He quietly tied for third in last year’s Players Championship.
1. Adam Scott He’s still the last place you can go to see something resembling Woods’s old swing. His game seems to be maturing, and he’s starting to win. There was last fall’s Tour Championship, although it probably should carry an asterisk because it was only a 30-man outing, and neither Tiger nor Phil played. But a W is a W, as Tiger likes to say. Scott won in Houston just before the Masters and appears to be figuring out how to play in majors. His record had been abysmal until last summer, when he was eighth in a difficult setup at the British Open and third at a birdie-fest in the PGA Championship. He came back from a bad start (74-78) to tie for 27th at the Masters. His strong play has him ranked No. 3 in the world, ahead of Ernie, Phil, Vijay and all the rest except Tiger and Jim Furyk. What hurt him at Augusta were four double bogeys — only three players (Ames, Robert Karlsson and Angel Cabrera) had more. Turn those doubles into singles and he’s in the top 15. Turn them into pars and, uh-oh, he’s top five. Enjoy this title, Adam. It won’t be yours forever.