If the golfing gods are kind at the U.S. Open Sunday, either Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia or Lee Westwood will finally feel the relief that comes from having a 400-pound gorilla climb off one’s back.
There are dozens of players in the field who have never claimed one of golf’s biggest prizes, but it’s those three who have had to live the longest with hearing the dreaded phrase, “Best player to never win a major.”
Aside from that blank spot on their resumes and the ability to play world-class golf, they don’t have much in common.
Johnson, the 6’4” beanpole who launches 300-yard drives with the same nonchalance that an IHOP cook flips pancakes, is an American who turns 32 next week.
Garcia, a 36-year-old Spaniard who once was expected to stare down Tiger Woods for victories at majors, is a master of the short game.
Westwood is a 43-year-old Englishman who supplanted Woods as the World No. 1 player in 2010 and held that title for 22 weeks. But he undoubtedly would have traded that ranking for a major title.
Fittingly, all three were bunched at two-under and tied for third place—three shots back of Irishman Shane Lowry—when the sun set on Oakmont Country Club on Saturday and play was suspended due to darkness. On Sunday, they’ll be up early to complete their third rounds, and then they’ll take aim at finally ending a major feeling something other than heartbreak.
All three hold numerous tournament titles and have notched top-10 finishes in majors. But they all went to sleep Saturday night knowing this is their chance to shift the assessment of their careers to all that they have accomplished, instead of what has not been done. A victory on Sunday changes everything for them.
So let’s take a look at them, one by one.
A win for D.J. would be marvelously poetic, given what happened to him at last year’s U.S. Open, when the title slipped through his fingers as he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole.
Before that, he famously grounded his club in a bunker on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship, costing himself a place in a playoff.
Last year’s disaster naturally led many to wonder whether he’d be able to shake off the dread and rebound. Well, so far in 2016, he has enjoyed eight top-10 finishes while pocketing more than $3 million, so yes, he has recovered.
But if this U.S. Open slips away, the doubters will be back and louder than ever, perpetuating the image of someone whose game has often gone flat in the late stages of majors.
But let’s not forget that Johnson has finished in the top 10 at majors 11 times, including four of the last five. Give him credit also for getting his life and his game back in order after he took a six-month leave of absence from the tour in 2014 to deal with "personal challenges."
Of the three, Johnson probably has the most at stake Sunday, because a victory would almost certainly expand the so-called Big Three of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth to a Big Four.
Garcia is the one who has worn the “best to never win a major” label the longest, thanks to the way he rocketed onto the scene. As a 19-year-old in 1999, he dueled with Tiger in the PGA Championship, only to lose by a single stroke. At the time, multiple majors seemed like a foregone conclusion for him.
Garcia has gone on to great things, including being on five Ryder Cup-winning teams. But the majors have shown no mercy.
He has finished second at four of them, two PGAs and two British Opens. The most recent came when he finished two strokes behind Rory McIlroy at the 2014 Brit.
Garcia has tried hard to shrug off his failure to win a major. Last year he told USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio, "It is important but it's not the ultimate thing. I'm not saying that winning a major is not important but it's not the most important thing in the world.”
Those oh-so-close flirtations with golf’s ultimate championships have sadly overshadowed an otherwise marvelous career: 20 top-10 finishes in majors and 10 in the top five. More than 300 weeks in the top 10 of the world rankings, from 2000-09. And more than $42 million in career earnings.
Throughout it all, Garcia’s rivalry with Woods was often testy and sometimes downright nasty. And if he wins Sunday, he just might want to point out that he’s still going strong, while no one is sure whether we’ll ever see Tiger play elite golf again.
Age did not seem to be much of a factor for Westwood—until last year, when his best finish in a major was a tie for 43rd at the PGA. That made it easy to forget about him. But he has a pair of eagles this week at Oakmont, serving notice that he remains dangerous. Here’s his eagle from Saturday:
Westwood’s tie for second at this year’s Masters was also overlooked in the wake of Jordan Spieth’s implosion. Or maybe the golf world just took Westwood for granted, given that he has been such a consistent contender in majors for two decades.
The first of Westwood’s 18 top-10 finishes at majors came at the 1997 British Open, and on 11 occasions he has been in the top five, including three times at the U.S. Open.
Before the 2015 slump, Westwood was playing most of his best golf in the latter stages of his career, with 11 top-10s in majors from 2009-14, including seven top-fives.
But as this week has shown, it was a mistake to count him out.
In 2010, he had a shot at becoming the rare winner of two majors in a single year, but he had to settle for runner-up finishes at the Masters and the Brit.
So much for all the ones that slipped away from Johnson, Garcia and Westwood.
All three deserve to finally complete their quest for a major, and it's a pity that only one of these three greats can walk away a winner on Sunday. But come on, golfing gods, it's time for one of them to catch a break and join the select list of majors champions.
Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.