The Loop

How valuable is a major championship?

July 12, 2011

SANDWICH, England -- Can a golfer be considered great if he hasn't won a major championship? Are there figurative asterisks on all those victories in regular tournaments, Ryder Cup heroics, hefty bank accounts and worldwide acclaim if a player, however otherwise proven, doesn't own a major title?

Colin Montgomerie, even more than two players from yesteryear, Macdonald Smith and Harry Cooper, has the glossiest golf résumé among those who have everything but a major to their credit. Montgomerie has won 31 times on the European Tour, led the Order of Merit a record eight times and been a Ryder Cup hero on multiple occasions. With five runner-up finishes in majors -- including an awful 72nd hole at the 2006 U.S. Open that gets lost amid Phil Mickelson's more dramatic stumble -- Monty is an argument for both sides of the debate.

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Questions about major pedigree are particularly salient questions this week at Royal St. George's, where, Luke Donald, the top-ranked golfer in the world, and Lee Westwood, who is currently No. 2, enter the 140th British Open still looking for their first major. The English duo might not be drawing quite the attention of Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, the runaway winner at the U.S. Open, but the fate of each is a big deal on the southeast coast of their home country.

By winning the U.S. Open, the 22-year-old McIlroy ticked off a goal Donald and Westwood still have on the horizon. At Congressional CC, it wasn't only a major won but a burden lost. "It has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders," McIlroy said Tuesday. "It means that every time I come into a press conference or do an interview I don't have to answer that question, whereas a lot of guys still do. Now I can talk about winning my second one after having won the first. It's a nice pressure to have off you."

Most stars begin winning majors early, when they're in their 20s, the way McIlroy has. Think Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods. Bobby Jones won all of his by 28, then quit to let others feel the pressure. There have been a couple of notable exceptions. Ben Hogan won the first of his nine, the 1946 PGA Championship, when he was 34. Phil Mickelson was a couple of months shy of turning 34 when he broke through at the 2004 Masters.

"To win any tournament, especially a major championship, you need to play well, obviously, and you need to have a little luck on your side," Mickelson, who has won three more majors since his maiden Masters. "Just a little thing here or there might make the difference, whatever that may be."

Intangibles? Donald, 33, and Westwood, 38, who have played in 32 and 53 majors, respectively, might be heartened by the fact that one countryman, Harry Vardon, won two of his record six Open championships at Royal St. George's. Henry Cotton, another English force, won the 1934 Open there, shooting a 65, one of the stellar scores of the first half of the 20th century, in the second round. Cotton was so commanding that week that he held a 10-stroke victory after 54 holes, closed with a 79 and still won by five strokes.

Donald arrives at Royal St. George's off a win at last week's rain-shortened Scottish Open, which certainly should help his confidence and his quest. He has had a very solid career - six career European Tour victories and three on the PGA Tour - and he has nothing to do with the system that has pinned him, for the last few weeks, as the world's best by the numbers.

"I can't control the ranking system," Donald said. "It's a mathematical thing that's worked out. I've obviously played well enough to get to the top [of the ranking], but certainly winning a major would be icing on a year that has been very, very successful so far. I've always wanted to win a major, even before I turned pro, growing up and watching some of my idols, the Faldos and the Seves and the like. It really doesn't change whether I'm ranked 100th or ranked No. 1."

Westwood, who also has had a turn at the top in the wake of Tiger Woods' scandal/slump, carries more gravitas as a winner than his younger compatriot, having won 21 times in Europe and twice on the PGA Tour. He has come teasingly close in several majors, including a third at the British Open in 2009 and a second in 2010. "Hopefully, it's a mathematical progression," Westwood said, "third, second, obviously I'm hoping for first."

Although Westwood is closing in on 40, that is no longer ancient in golf years, at least for many golfers, even in the tightrope act that majors can be. "I think it depends on how fit you keep yourself and how mentally up for it you are," Westwood said. "You've got to want it still. I think that's the main thing."

No doubt Donald and Westwood want it a lot. One reckons Montgomerie, did, too, but it was an unrequited pursuit that, at age 48, appears all but over. Monty isn't in the field at Royal St. George's this week, missing from the Open after playing 21 consecutive times. When Monty was 33, or when he was 38, he surely kept thinking he was going to claim a major sooner or later.

Tiger is on the bench. They will have the home gallery on their side. They are playing well. It's not a bad confluence for Donald and Westwood, rivals and good friends, who can punctuate a career by winning. Someone Tuesday asked Donald what the atmosphere would be like come late Sunday afternoon if he was paired with Westwood. "I doubt coming down the stretch there would be too much chitchat," Donald said. "We'd be very cordial, but I think we'd be getting on with business."

Whatever happens this week, there will be more major opportunities for Donald and Westwood, but the clock is ticking. Later can turn into never. Just ask Monty.

-- Bill Fields

(Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)