Published August 07, 2013
PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The list of best players to have never won a major seems to get longer every year. And it becomes more meaningful at the PGA Championship, the final chance of the year for these players to stop answering questions about when they will win a Grand Slam even.
Lee Westwood and Luke Donald share the distinction of being the only players to be No. 1 in the world without ever having won a major. Sergio Garcia has been a candidate for the last five years, even though he's only 31. Steve Stricker joined the conversation with his resurgence.
The focus becomes even more intense considering that Adam Scott (Masters) and Justin Rose (U.S. Open) became first-time major champions this year. Go back even further to find that 14 of the last 18 majors went to players who had never won the big one.
The PGA Championship is as good a place to start as any major. It comes with a lifetime exemption into the tournament, not to mention the heaviest trophy among the majors, and an invitation to a champions-only dinner that is similar to the one at the Masters, but far more inclusive (wives are invited, for example).
Here are five examples of great players who won their first major at the PGA Championship:
5. PAUL AZINGER
A late bloomer in golf, Paul Azinger won his first PGA Tour event in 1987 and quickly became an American force. He won every year since then, and had 10 wins on tour when he came to the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness.
He already had lost the 54-hole lead in a major twice — in 1987 at the British Open, when he bogeyed the last two holes at Muirfield and finished one behind Nick Faldo; and in 1988 at the PGA Championship at Oak Tree, when Jeff Sluman closed with a 65 and won by three.
Azinger was one shot behind Greg Norman going into the final round at Inverness, which produced one of the great leaderboards in a major. Among those with a chance that day were Faldo, Vijay Singh, Tom Watson, John Cook, Lanny Wadkins, and even a young Californian in his second year on tour, Phil Mickelson.
Azinger closed with a 68 to force a sudden-death playoff with Norman. On the second extra hole, Azinger missed a good birdie chance. He was preparing to go to the next hole when Norman's 4-foot par putt spun out of the hole.
The high of his career came crashing down a few months later when Azinger was diagnosed with cancer in his left shoulder. He recovered to win again on the PGA Tour seven years later. He never seriously contended in another major.
4. PAYNE STEWART
Payne Stewart stumbled into the first of his three major championships.
He had four wins, including the Bay Hill Invitational in 1987 and a five-shot win at Hilton Head in 1989. He was No. 13 in the world ranking when he came to the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes just outside Chicago. Stewart, dressed in Chicago Bears colors through an NFL apparel deal, was six shots behind going into the final round and closed with a 67. Still, it looked like he would be runner-up at best, as he was at Royal St. George's in 1985 when he finished one behind Sandy Lyle in the British Open.
The man in charge was Mike "Radar" Reid, known for his accurate driving. Reid instead produced one of the great collapses in PGA Championship history. He made bogey on the 16th, double bogey on the 17th and missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 18th to force a playoff.
Stewart went on to win the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, and another U.S. Open in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 before his death that fall in a freak plane accident.
3. DAVIS LOVE III
Tom Kite was the first player of his generation to be labeled the "best without a major" until he broke through at the 1992 U.S. Open. Most of the attention shifted to Corey Pavin, who won the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. And while there were others who fit the mold — such as Paul Azinger and Nick Price — next in line was Davis Love III.
He was a premier power player of his generation, the son of a popular teaching pro. Love already had 10 wins on the PGA Tour, including The Players Championship. He was runner-up at the 1995 Masters by one shot to Ben Crenshaw, and his best chance at a major was the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where he three-putted from 20 feet on the last hole and wound up one shot behind Steve Jones.
The 1997 PGA Championship was at Winged Foot, the end of a major year for youth — Tiger Woods at the Masters, Ernie Els with his second U.S. Open, Justin Leonard at the British Open.
Love opened with a 66 and had another 66 in the third round to share the 54-hole lead with Leonard. Love was in control for much of the final round and finally pulled away at the end. He made birdie on the last hole for a five-shot win, commemorated by that beautiful rainbow over Winged Foot.
It was the only major Love won, though he is a lock for the Hall of Fame with his 20 PGA Tour victories.
2. LARRY NELSON
Larry Nelson didn't get hooked on golf until he was in the Army serving in Vietnam. He didn't qualify for the PGA Tour until he was 27. So while he won his first major at age 33, it was an astounding rise to the elite in golf.
Nelson won twice in 1979 to finish second to Tom Watson on the money list. The 1981 PGA Championship was held at Atlanta Athletic Club, not far from his home. Nelson seized control with a 66 in the third round that gave him a four-shot lead going into the final day. Given his experience outside of golf, he didn't flinch. Nelson closed with a 71 for a four-shot win over Fuzzy Zoeller.
Nelson never got enough attention, and probably not enough credit. He just kept winning. He added the U.S. Open at Oakmont two years later, than captured another PGA Championship in 1987, beating Lanny Wadkins in a playoff.
1. NICK PRICE
Nick Price first showed his class ball-striking when he was runner-up to Tom Watson at Royal Troon in 1982, and won at Firestone a year later by four shots over Jack Nicklaus. A decade later, Price hit his stride. And it was only fitting that the first of his three majors came at the 1992 PGA Championship.
A year earlier, Price had to pull out of the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick at the last minute when his wife had their first child. That caused a rookie from Arkansas named John Daly to drive up to Indiana as an alternate. Daly got into the PGA, used Price's caddie and overpowered Crooked Stick to win.
Price was No. 15 in the world when he went to the Bellerive outside St. Louis for the 1992 Championship. He opened with a pair of 70s to trail Gene Sauers by four shots, and he cut the deficit in half in the third round with a 68. Sauers faltered to a 75 in the final round, and Price closed with a 70 to win by three shots.
It was the start of a dominant period of golf for the Zimbabwean. Price won four times on the PGA Tour the following season, and in 1994 won the British Open at Turnberry and he went to No. 1 in the world for the first time by adding the '94 PGA Championship at Southern Hills.