AUGUSTA, Georgia – The modern “Big Three” have won five of the last six majors going into the Masters.
The other “Big Three” can only hope they are next.
That would be the trio of top players — Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler — who have done everything right over the past several years except for those four weeks that define careers.
All of them are among the top 10 in the world. All of them have had their close calls in the majors, which motivates them even more.
“I still feel like my time is coming,” Johnson said Monday. “I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position to have a chance to win. One of these days, I will get it done.”
The label of “best to have never won a major” has been around for at least three decades, and most of those players eventually won one, whether it was Tom Kite or Corey Pavin, Davis Love III or Phil Mickelson. And then there was Colin Montgomerie, who never did, and Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, who have to wonder if they ever will.
The list of current candidates is growing.
And with Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day taking turns winning majors and trading time at No. 1 in the world, it’s getting tougher.
“It’s never been easy to predict winners in golf, but it’s certainly not getting any easier,” Stenson said.
Stenson, who turns 40 on Tuesday, might feel the greatest sense of urgency.
He has reached as high as No. 2 in the world. He was runner-up at Muirfield in the British Open and tied for third in the PGA Championship three years ago. His closest call was in 2014 in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, when he was among four players tied for the lead on the back nine and tied for third.
Frustrating? Yes. Hopeless? Not even close.
“I know I’ve got a game that fits well for major championship golf, and I’ve just got to keep on putting myself in the final groups, or in the last couple of groups,” Stenson said. “The more times I do that, the better the chances are for the outcome that I want to have. … I’m certainly motivated to make it happen.”
To make that happen at Augusta, history is not on his side. That goes for Johnson and Fowler, too.
Stenson believes Augusta National suits him well, even though he has yet to record a top 10 in the Masters. Johnson finally cracked the top 10 last year with a tie for sixth — nine shots behind Spieth.
Fowler tied for fifth in 2014, though he took himself out of the picture early in the final round.
Fowler is the youngest of the group at 27, though he joined an elite group two years ago by finishing in the top five at all the majors. He’s starting to win with more regularity, piling up four wins against strong fields over the last 12 months.
Mickelson was 34 when he finally won his first major in 2004 at the Masters.
“It was difficult to be patient,” Mickelson said. “But I always believed and knew that I would end up winning a major. In fact, I knew I would win multiple. So it was never a hurdle. It was more of when this happens, it’s going to take off. And not that five is a ton, but it’s a lot more than zero where I was at.”
Mickelson considers The Players Championship, which Fowler won last year, to be a precursor.
“It just a minor step below a major,” Mickelson said. “I feel that the way he drives the golf ball and the way he’s striking it now, it’s inevitable.”
Johnson still gets the most attention of the current crop of those trying to win their first major. Most of that is because of sheer skill, and some because of the wounds he has accumulated.
He had a three-shot lead in the 2010 U.S. Open and closed with an 82. Later that year, he was knocked out of a playoff in the PGA Championship because of a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in sand without realizing it was one of the thousand bunkers at Whistling Straits. He was closing in on the lead at the British Open the following year until hitting 2-iron out-of-bounds. And then last year at the U.S. Open, he went from a chance to win to runner-up with three putts from 12 feet.
What helps is that the 31-year-old Johnson has a short memory. He sees his failures in the majors as learning experiences, and the label of “best to have never won a major” as a compliment.
“If you name is getting mentioned as best player … whatever comes after that, you’re usually pretty good,” he said.