Jim Furyk still remembers his US Open threesome for the first two rounds many moons ago with Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
The USGA, in its inestimable wisdom, used to like to sprinkle a few clever pairings together such as three players with the same last name or three overweight players, or in this case, the three players at the time vying for the label of best player never to win a major, or for short, “BPNTWAM.”
“I never liked that label, and I didn’t see the humour in the pairing,” said Furyk.
Every player covets the majors. Furyk, the 2018 US Ryder Cup captain, shed the dreaded title at the 2003 US Open at Olympia Fields. It took Garcia, 37, a record 71 major starts as a professional for him to finally triumph at the Masters in April.
The last six majors have produced first-time winners, among them Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who broke through at the 2016 Open Championship and ably tried to explain this run of first-time glory.
“You say, ‘OK, he won his first major, why shouldn’t I win mine?’” he said. “The competition on a weekly basis is so tight out there and so tough. It’s so many players in the field that can win.”
In the eyes of many, when Garcia “got the monkey off his back”, as he put it, American Rickie Fowler inherited the weight of being the best player without a major title. Fowler, ranked No9 in the Official World Golf Ranking, has posted seven top-16 finishes since a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in February, including a win at the Honda Classic, and seems poised to break through at a major.
He proved his mettle with an epic finish at the 2015 Players Championship, and that his game travels, with victories at the 2015 Scottish Open and 2016 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. After Fowler opened with a bogey-free 7-under-par 65 that included birdies on all four of the par-5s at Erin Hills, he was asked if he considered being the best player without a major to be a compliment or a burden.
“I take it as a compliment,” Fowler said with a smile. “There are a lot of really good players out here that haven’t won a major. So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I’m not saying that this is the week or isn’t the week.”
Too much golf is still to be played before that will be determined, but 12 of the last 13 major winners were inside the top 10 after the first round.
Fowler is not the undisputed titleholder for BPNTWAM that Garcia had become.
Fellow American Matt Kuchar, who turns 39 on June 21, has notched seven PGA Tour victories and been a human ATM without cashing in on a major. England’s Paul Casey, who once reached as high as World No3 and has climbed back to No14, looks to be a factor at Erin Hills. Despite making an 8 at the 14th hole on Friday, he rolled off five birdies in a row en route to a 36-hole total of 7-under 137.
“I would dearly love a major,” said Casey, “but I’ve learned it doesn’t take a lot to miss your opportunity so I try not to think about it.”
And then there’s the third member of the Furyk pairing that made him furious all those years ago. Westwood, the 44-year-old Englishman and a former World No1, has finished in the top 10 on 18 occasions and been runner-up three times in majors. He played in the last group at the 2016 US Open before ballooning to an 80.
“He just won’t go away, will he?” said former European Tour chief Ken Schofield.
All that’s missing from Westwood’s sterling resume is a major. Yet, he is in danger of ending up like Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie as one of the best players of his era but doomed to be remembered as a nearly man at the majors. Every time it seems his window has closed and Westwood can’t possibly win a major, he pops up on the leaderboard and shouldn’t be counted out.
“If I keep going like this, I should be right there on Sunday to give myself a chance,” said Westwood after opening with 69.
Someone who has yet to give up on Westwood is his coach, Pete Cowen, who says the great players are comfortable in uncomfortable situations. “Like the Elite Force,” he said.
To underscore the point, Cowen tells a story of Westwood’s first Ryder Cup appearance in 1997. Seve Ballesteros, European captain, approached Westwood on the practice tee and presented him with cotton balls for his ears to dull the deafening roar of the crowds. Westwood declined, saying he had worked a long time for the privilege of hearing those roars.
“That’s one quality you usually see in all the best players,” said Cowen. “They love the stage.”
As Westwood seeks career validation, he can draw hope from American Tom Kite, who, 25 years ago, at age 42, ended his major championship futility at the US Open at Pebble Beach. Or will it be Fowler to rid himself of the inglorious honor?
“I’m not getting ahead of myself, but if I keep knocking on the door, putting myself in position, I can win a major,” said Fowler.
Then, like Garcia, he can join a more illustrious club: The 134 men before him who have won one and only one major.
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