AUGUSTA, Ga. — Curtis Strange, who long ago took himself out of the conversation with a pair of U.S. Open victories, abhors all “best player to never win a major” talk.
“It’s such a backhanded compliment, isn’t it? You know, you’re a pretty good player, but let’s remind you that you’re not that good,” said Strange, now offering his expertise to ESPN.
But here comes another Masters. It is the tournament that just plays so perfectly into that discussion. The first major of the year. The real awakening of another golf season. The tournament that seems to relish wrapping some deprived millionaire in green and declaring him a first-time major winner.
This is a place where very good players come to shake the notion they lack the greatness gene.
Just look at the evidence of these last 15 years. Phil Mickelson (2004) and Adam Scott (2013) removed themselves from the best-to-never list with highly charged Masters victories. There was no greater example of the Masters-made man than Sergio Garcia, who had become a fixture on that same list — and was threatening to retire the title — before his 2017 Masters victory. Even Patrick Reed’s win last year removed any lingering doubt that he might not be every bit as good as he thinks he is.
The breakthrough has become a Masters standard story, a well-trodden theme in these parts along the lines of the tragic flaw in Greek literature and the wacky romantic mix-up on the Hallmark Channel.
So, if none of the usual suspects like Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth or Mickelson can add to their cache of majors, who might be the one this week to remove that slightest of slanders — best to never win a major from his file?
Matt Kuchar? He churns out top finishes like Hershey’s does kisses, is 10th in career money winnings and the current leader in the FedEx Cup points race, having won twice this season. Having been burned far too many times by predictions that this is Kuchar’s time — he has played in 13 of these things — I’m backing off of him now. (That might be to his benefit). I’ve come to the conclusion he just may lead a quite happy and fulfilled life never winning a major.
Kuchar’s name did not spill from the lips of the ESPN experts when asked their picks for a breakthrough guy here this week.
Andy North, another two-time U.S. Open winner, trended younger.
“I think Jon Rahm is the most dangerous,” said North of Rahm, who at 24 is a little young to be on any list that hints at career disappointment, but has worked his way there nonetheless.
“We’ve seen him go on runs where he can be amazing,” North said. “Jon Rahm to me just looks like he’s going to have a really good future, and he’s so strong and as he matures, I think his game will also mature a little bit. He gets a little excited with himself sometimes and I think he can hurt himself, but those are all things that you go through.”
“Look at (Tommy) Fleetwood and what he did at Shinnecock last year,” said Strange, referring to a closing 63 that left him second in last year’s U.S. Open.
“And Rickie,” Strange said. Rickie, of course, is Rickie Fowler, the golfer who once looked to be auditioning for a boy band but ever since 2014 when he finished top five in all four majors has been trying out seriously for the role of major winner.
“Rickie seems to be playing well every week,” Strange said. (He has a win and a second this year).
In the over-40 division, a popular selection over Kuchar seems to be Paul Casey, the Englishman who has played in a dozen Masters, has three top-6 finishes in the last four years and concluded last year’s tournament with a nifty 65.
As he told the Augusta Chronicle, “The one thing about the Masters is I know every shot I’ve got to hit before I get there.”
Or, to continue the international theme, what about 27-year-old Hideki Matsuyama? You think being the first Asian-born winner of the Masters would be pretty big news to a significant portion of the globe’s population? His putting issues will not travel well down Magnolia Lane. Still, Matsuyama has top-20 finishes in his last four Masters appearances.
Such players of quality, seeking a defining victory at Augusta National, make up a separate, sizable flight at the Masters. They and their quest are as much a tradition of this tournament as azaleas and outrageous hotel prices. And they will not be ignored.