The Most Promising First Majors
Golf Digest Senior Writer Jaime Diaz ranks the five biggest breakthroughs in major championship history
June 21, 2011
Tiger Woods: 1997 MastersWoods had already demonstrated he was extra special by winning three straight U.S. Juniors, three straight U.S. Amateurs, and, in his first eight months as a pro, three PGA Tour events. But he had yet to come close in a major, and when he shot 40 on his first nine at Augusta, it seemed he was out of another one. Instead the 21-year-old unleashed the most devastating onslaught the tournament had ever seen, playing the next 63 holes in 22-under par. The power golf and superb short game and putting that he displayed unmistakably declared a new era as he won by 12. As Ben Crenshaw said before Woods began the final round with a nine-stroke lead, "It feels like a passing."
Jack Nicklaus: 1962 U.S. OpenNicklaus brought the same sense of inevitability as Woods. A two-time U.S. Amateur champion, Nicklaus had seriously challenged in both the 1960 and 1961 U.S. Opens. He was monster long, a great strategist, and extremely poised under pressure. He got off to a relatively slow start as a professional in 1962, winless in his first 16 events going into the U.S. Open at Oakmont. There the 22-year-old regained his groove with the putter, and as local hero Arnold Palmer had 10 three putts, Nicklalus only had one. Although Palmer was still the best player in the world, in their playoff Nicklaus outdrove him by a lot and hit towering irons that stopped more quickly. He was not only better than Palmer, he looked like he could end up better than anybody.
Seve Ballesteros: 1979 British OpenThe 22-year-old Ballesteros had won nine times in Europe and once on the PGA Tour, along with finishing second in the 1976 British Open, when he arrived at Royal Lytham. Physically the Spaniard was at his peak, very long off the tee, not as wild as he would become, with perhaps the greatest short game ever seen. He played his practice rounds with Roberto De Vicenzo, who told him, "You have the hands, now you must play with your heart." In the last round, Ballesteros overtook Hale Irwin and won by three in charismatic fashion. Nine months later he dominated the Masters, taking a 10-shot lead in the final round before winning by four. But Ballesteros' prime would be short, making his total of five career majors feel insufficient.
John Daly: 1991 PGA ChampionshipFrom the standpoint of power, no one has ever dominated a major championship the way Daly did at Crooked Stick. He became an underground legend on the then-Hogan Tour for his driving distance, his long backswing, and his drinking before joining the PGA Tour in 1991. After getting into the PGA as the ninth alternate and not playing a practice round, Daly simply gripped it and ripped it, flying the corners of the water-guarded doglegs at Crooked Stick with 300-yard plus bombs, outdriving his playing partners by 50 yards and leaving course architect Pete Dye in awe. He won by three and, at 25, seemed positioned to usher in a new long ball era. Instead, despite winning the 1995 British Open, Daly led a chaotic personal life and has ultimately underachieved.
Jerry Pate: 1976 U.S. OpenPate had won the 1974 U.S. Amateur, and big things were predicted after he won the Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club in dramatic fashion. Tied for the lead on the 72nd hole and facing a shot of 190 yards over water, the adrenaline-charged 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie smashed a smashed a 5-iron out of light rough to within two feet of the hole. With one of the most fluid swings ever seen, Pate had gotten a major before fellow young guns Lanny Wadkins and Ben Crenshaw, and appeared to have even more talent. But Pate proved star-crossed. He would three-putt the final green of the 1978 PGA Championship before losing in a playoff, and shortly after winning the 1982 Players Championship -- his eighth career victory -- Pate hurt his left shoulder and never won or played really well again.