If there’s one thing we can all agree on right now in golf, it’s that Lee Westwood is the best player who hasn’t won a major. He pretty much ended any debate by working his way up to No. 1 in the world ranking without the benefit of a major championship on his resume.
This title has been passed around like an offering basket in church the last few years. Previous titleholders include Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Kenny Perry and, if you want to go way back to the early 2000s, Phil Mickelson, who didn’t snag his first Masters until the age of 34.
I arrive at my ranking by asking one question: who’s playing the best golf among the majorless majority? That’s not the same as wondering which majorless players have the most potential or the most talent, and that’s why Sergio, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson aren’t on my list. They’ve played their way out of the top 10.
Congratulations, Lee, you’re No. 1, but with a little luck and a few key putts, you could escape this list in 2011.
1. Lee Westwood.
Age: 37 World ranking: 1
What he’s done lately: You mean besides kick butt and take names at the Ryder Cup? Westwood, who came up excruciatingly short at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the 2009 British Open at Turnberry, followed in his own footsteps this season. He had four runner-up finishes in 2010, including seconds at the Masters, the British Open and the recent HSBC Champions. His two wins came at Memphis, where Robert Garrigus tripled the 72nd hole to hand Westwood the title, and the limited-field Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa in December.
Big Picture: Westwood is simply too good of a ballstriker not to win a major. (Wait, didn’t we say the same thing about Monty once upon a time?) The most likely scenario is that he pulls a Louis Oosthuizen and runs away from the field in one of the big four events, winning by a hefty margin. In pressure-packed, nip-and-tuck finishes, he hasn’t been a strong closer for a simple reason — his short game and his putting haven’t come through at crunch time.
Will he or won’t he? He will.
2. Steve Stricker.
Age: 43 World ranking: 6
What he’s done lately: His two wins look pretty small in the rear-view mirror — at Riviera back in February and at the John Deere in July. He had a nice run in late summer with three top-10 finishes in the four FedEx Cup playoff events. Overall, it was a very good year for Wisconsin’s greatest golfer. He won $4.1 million, which will buy him a lot of hunting gear.
Big Picture: His game has gotten better with age, and he has turned into a better closer in regular events, which is why he now has nine tour victories. He has let some major chances slip away, but those losses give him valuable pressure-situation experience that may help him next time.
Will he or won’t he? Maybe, but he turns 44 in February, so he’d better hurry.
3. Ian Poulter.
Age: 34 World ranking: 10
What he’s done lately: Poulter is fresh off a reviving win in Hong Kong, a bookend to his year after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson last winter. Also starred, again, in the Ryder Cup.
Big Picture: Poulter is a fierce competitor whose game is somewhat enigmatic — it comes and goes. His ballstriking isn’t always a strength, but his short game and putting make him tough to beat, especially in match play. You have to like his unwavering self-confidence, too, as he believes he has what it takes to get to No. 1. Maybe he does, but he’s in the prime of his career now and needs to make a move. His gritty play to finish second to Padraig Harrington at the British Open two years ago still looms large, a reason for optimism.
Will he or won’t he? He will, probably.
4. Paul Casey.
Age: 33 World ranking: 8
What he’s done lately: He lost to Poulter in the Match Play final, wasn’t able to catch Louis Oosthuizen on the last day at St. Andrews, was 12th at the PGA and most recently sixth in Shanghai.
Big Picture: It’s hard to believe he’s won 11 times in Europe and only once in the U.S., at Houston in 2009. Casey has a world of talent: he’s long, makes a lot of birdies and knows how to win. Like Westwood on a smaller scale, he hasn’t found the knack for winning on a regular basis. He just doesn’t seem to putt as well on Sundays when he’s in contention as he does in the first three rounds.
Will he or won’t he? Maybe. He certainly has the goods to deliver.
5. Dustin Johnson.
Age: 26 World ranking: 14
What he’s done lately: Two wins this year, one at Pebble Beach in February and an impressive victory at the BMW Championship in September. Of course, neither of those drew as much attention as his final-round implosion at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open or his penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the final hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Big Picture: What a talent. There is nobody on tour longer than this guy. He’s got a lot of finesse shots, too, and he’s not a bad putter. He seems relatively fearless, almost to the point of being nonchalant. Was that what happened at the Straits? Anger seemed to get the better of him at Pebble, where he tripled the second hole and then foolishly tried to drive the green at the third. His mental game and discipline need some work. But don’t forget, a young Tom Watson kicked away a couple of majors in the late ’70s before he found his groove.
Will he or won’t he? He will.
6. Matt Kuchar.
Age: 32 World ranking: 13
What he’s done lately: Two wins in the last two years, decent showing in the Ryder Cup. He also led the Tour in scoring average, a notable feat, and was the most consistent guy out there with 11 top-10 finishes.
Big Picture: A year earlier, you’d be laughing if Kooch was on a list of best players without a major, but he earned a spot on this list with his steadily improving play.
Will he or won’t he? A definite maybe, at a U.S. Open perhaps?
7. Luke Donald.
Age: 32 World ranking: 9
What he’s done lately: He’s the mystery that defines the world rankings puzzle. What, exactly, did he do to get to No. 9 in the world? He won in Madrid, not a big event, and he’s king of the back-door top-five. Donald was a three-time runner-up in 2010 and finished third twice without much fanfare, including at the recent HSBC Champions. Played great in his singles final against Jim Furyk at the Ryder Cup.
Big Picture: He’s a good little player in the era of the big hitter, and he’s made a lot of money without racking up many wins — just two in the U.S. and three in Europe. He drives it straight and chips and putts pretty well, but he doesn’t have the power to dominate a course. Back home in England, he’s seen as a bit of an underachiever, but that’s an unfair critique. He’s been playing some of his best golf of late, but it’s difficult to beat guys like Dustin Johnson or Martin Kaymer or Phil or Tiger if you’re spotting them 30 to 60 yards off the tee.
Will he or won’t he? He will. There’s got to be a U.S. Open or PGA Championship course that requires the kind of precision shotmaking that he specializes in.
8. Rory McIlroy.
Age: 21 World ranking: 11
What he’s done lately: Impressive closing 62 to win at Quail Hollow in May. He quietly placed third in the British Open and the PGA Championship. Was fifth at the recent HSBC Champions.
Big Picture: His short game looked a bit spotty in his first Ryder Cup, and he’s carrying the weight of great expectations as golf’s designated Next Big Thing. He could be it (although Germany’s Martin Kaymer looks like that guy now), but he carries an everyman charm that has already helped make him a star. He won once in Europe, at Dubai in 2009, and has had some back problems, a concern for so young a player. But like Dustin Johnson, he doesn’t seem impressed by what he’s done or who he’s playing against. He plays a mature game for his age.
Will he or won’t he? He will. He’s got another 20 years or so to chase it, so time is on his side.
9. Edoardo/Francesco Molinari.
Age: 29/28 World ranking: 18/15.
What they’ve done lately: The brothers were one of golf’s big stories in ’10, playing their way onto the European Ryder Cup squad while elevating golf in Italy. Edoardo won twice in Scotland, at the Johnnie Walker Championship and the Scottish Open, while Francesco won the HSBC Champions at Shanghai in November.
Big Picture: Edoardo seems more like the swashbuckling artist type, lots of birdies and go-for-it shots, while Francesco is more of the fairways-and-greens plodder. Both have a lot of potential.
Will they or won’t they? They will. Opens for them both, a British for Edoardo and a U.S. for Francesco.
10. Adam Scott.
Age: 30 World ranking: 24
What he’s done lately: It’s been a while since his win at the Valero Texas Open, and he didn’t use that as a springboard, managing just three more top-10 finishes the rest of the year. For a guy whose game had slipped badly, though, he made good progress and is looking more like the Adam of old.
Big Picture: Hard to believe the former future of golf is 30. It just shows how tough this game is at the elite level. He was never a great putter or chipper, and while he’s worked on those areas and showed some improvement, his putting isn’t yet at the level it needs to be. He’s still relatively young, though.
Will he or won’t he? If the putting improves, yes.