AUGUSTA, Ga. - The list of contenders has rarely been this strong. The credentials are as impeccable as ever. Indeed, the competition is more wide open than ever at the Masters.
Only it’s not just about the green jacket.
It’s a label - best to have never won a major championship.
And it’s a long list these days.
Much of the attention is divided between Luke Donald, currently No. 1 in the world, and Lee Westwood, a former No. 1 who has finished among the top three in six of his last 14 majors, including being the runner-up at Augusta National two years ago.
But the list is deeper than that.
Going into this year’s Masters, six of the top 10 players in the world - and 18 of the top 25 - have yet to win a major.
Phil Mickelson remembers what it was like to be tagged the “best to have never won a major.” He carried that burden - and with his talent, it was an enormous burden - for some seven years before he drained that 18-foot birdie putt in 2004 to win the Masters. From that point on, he drove down Magnolia Lane with more joy than trepidation.
“After winning in 2004, the pressure has not been the same,” he said. “Because there was this burden of having never won a major. There was this burden of wanting to win the Masters so bad and being a part of the history of the tournament. When I won in 2004, it was no longer pressure I felt. It was excitement.”
That might explain why he came close to winning the next three majors, why he won the PGA Championship the following season, another green jacket in 2006, and why he likes his chances of joining Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer as a four-time Masters champion.
Mickelson was easy to identify on that dreaded list. Ditto for a half-dozen others before him - David Duval, Mark O’Meara, Davis Love III, Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger and Tom Kite. The missing major was more obvious because of their world ranking, money titles, close calls in the majors, number of wins, or a combination of those measures.
That’s what makes this list as strong as it has been in years.
Donald was asked Tuesday how he would define the best player to have not won a major, and once he settled on a definition, whom he would rate at the top of the list.
“That’s a tricky question,” he said. “Obviously, my name would be in the hat. Lee has been around quite a bit, and he’s obviously had probably more opportunities that I have to win majors.”
Sergio Garcia soon came to mind, as did Steve Stricker, who has reached No. 2 in the world and for a short time was the highest-ranked American. That distinction currently belongs to Hunter Mahan, who won for the second time this year at the Houston Open on Sunday.
Dustin Johnson is working his way onto the list, though he won’t have a chance this week because he withdrew with a sore back. Justin Rose is forcing his way into the conversation, with four wins in the last four years, including a World Golf Championship at Doral last month.
Darren Clarke could be considered the last player to remove his name from the list. He won the British Open last year at Royal St. George’s, but much like O’Meara in 1998, most thought his best years were behind him. That was a pleasant surprise.
Before that was Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007, when he overcame a double bogey on the 18th hole and beat Garcia in a playoff. It looked then, as it did eight years earlier, that Garcia’s time was coming.
But it hasn’t. There is no guarantee it will.
Garcia went two years without winning anywhere until back-to-back wins in Spain which brought him back into the top 50. He is No. 21 now, and he has finished among the top 12 in the last three majors.
No one has more scars from major chances - twice in the final group with Tiger Woods (U.S. Open at Bethpage, British Open at Hoylake), the runner-up finish at age 19 at Medinah, in a playoff at Carnoustie in 2007, and a runner-up finish to Harrington again at Oakland Hills in the 1998 PGA Championship.
But it’s all about the now, which puts Donald and Westwood at the top of the list. They are the only two players to have been No. 1 without ever winning a major.
“Over the last couple of years, his performance has gotten stronger and stronger,” Nick Faldo said of Donald. “Now he’s climbed to No. 1, and he’s looking at the next rung on the ladder, which is being a major champion.”
The last year should serve Donald well, not just because he has won five times in the last 14 months, but because he realized he only played truly great golf in one of those wins - the Match Play Championship a year ago.
“I’ve been able to win tournaments without playing my best golf, and I think majors are a similar deal,” Donald said. “I think a lot of people put too much pressure on yourself, and you go out there and you press a little bit too hard, and suddenly you’re a few shots back and trying to play catch up.
“Know that just playing my game is good enough is a good thought to have for me.”
Memories from last year won’t hurt. Donald was in the thick of contention until he pushed his 8-iron ever so slightly on the wrong hole - the par-3 12th - and it went in the water for double bogey. He rallied strong, though, chipped in for birdie on the 18th for a 69 and wound up in a tie for fourth. He knows his game will work here.
Ditto for Westwood, who did little wrong with a one-shot lead going into the final round at Augusta in 2010. Trouble was, Mickelson did everything right, including that sensational shot through the trees on the 13th.
“It’s quite frustrating at a time when you keep coming close,” Westwood said.
It can make for a frustrating four weeks out of the year - unless, or until they win.