Who is the best player without a major in the modern era?

April 15, 2020
Justin Ray

Doug Sanders passed away Sunday at the age of 86.

Remembered best for his flamboyant style on the golf course, Sanders finished his career as one of the most accomplished players of the modern era to have never won a major championship. He won 20 PGA Tour titles, including the 1956 Canadian Open as an amateur. He finished runner-up in a major on four occasions, including the crushing 1970 Open Championship. That day, he needed four shots from less than 75 yards away on the final hole, then lost a playoff the next day to Jack Nicklaus.

Thinking about Sanders and his career brings up an inevitable question: where does he rank all-time among the best players to have never won a major?

There is no perfect answer to this question, though a long time ago I did my best to come up with a formula to do just that. Eleven years ago, when I was just getting started at ESPN, I came up with something called the ‘Almost Index,’ a formula that took into account worldwide wins, finishes in majors and 54-hole leads. It would be used to compare players in an upcoming major championship field who had not yet won a big one. The end result was a list of numbers and names that, at the time, often had Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood on top.

But could it be used to come up with a historic list of the best without a major?

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The formula needed a bit of a renovation before putting it back into practice. For one, top-ten percentage in regular Tour events has been removed, something that was part of the formula before. There wouldn’t be much sense in incorporating what a player did in his late in his career in events when he was well past his prime. Another modification was to something we called ‘major points,’ a rudimentary way of weighing finishes in majors. The ‘points’ are like this – 9 for a runner-up finish, 8 for third place, 7 for fourth, and so on, down to 1 point tenth.

For this exercise, we cut the data off at 1934, the year of the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament. Here are the five best players, according to the formula, along with their corresponding ‘Almost Index 2.0’ score:

  1. Scott Hoch, 22.7

From 1987 to 2002, Hoch had 15 top-ten finishes in major championships. Only five players had more in that span: Nick Faldo (20), Greg Norman (20), Ernie Els (17), Fred Couples (16) and Phil Mickelson (16). An eleven-time winner on the PGA Tour, Hoch missed a two-foot putt at the 1989 Masters that would have secured the green jacket. The afore-mentioned Faldo would go on to win on the following playoff hole.

  1. Colin Montgomerie, 31.5

Monty lost playoffs in major championships in consecutive years in the 1990s: the 1994 U.S. Open (won by Els) and the 1995 PGA (won by Steve Elkington). His three runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open are the most all-time by a non-American player. His five runner-up finishes overall in major championships are the most all-time by a player without a win.

Montgomerie is fourth all-time in wins on the European Tour, with 31, but didn’t win on American soil until he hit the senior circuit. Maybe the most amazing Montgomerie statistic of all: he never won a playoff in his European Tour career. In eight of them, he lost seven, with the other being called due to darkness.

  1. Harry Cooper, 32.1

Cooper is the player most constrained in this exercise by the era he played in: when he won the Western Open in 1934, it was regarded as one of the most significant golf tournaments in the world. He also has a chunk of his achievements missing in the formula used for this exercise: from 1923 to 1933, he won 13 events later credited as ‘PGA Tour’ victories.

He is credited with 31 of those PGA Tour titles in all, most all-time by a player without one of the four majors to his credit. But that number is a malleable one, much like the win totals of many players before World War II. Cooper finished fourth or better four times in Augusta from 1936 to 1940 and reached the round of sixteen or further in the (then match play) PGA Championship eight times. He finished second in the U.S. Open twice – in 1927 and 1936.

  1. Doug Sanders, 33.1

“The Peacock of the Fairways” wore bright colored shoes and outfits a generation before Rickie Fowler did. Sanders’ game drew attention, too: since 1950, no player has more PGA Tour wins without a major championship than Doug does. His four runner-up finishes in majors are tied for second-most by anyone to never win one.

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  1. Lee Westwood, 37.5

His career isn’t over yet – he finished tied for fourth at the 2019 Open Championship, the last major contested – giving hope that he may still get his name off this list. But even if he never wins a major, 46-year-old Lee Westwood has assembled a career that may not be fully appreciated until years down the road.

Westwood has a staggering twelve top-five finishes in major championships, two more than any other player all-time without a victory. He is one of two players in the history of the Official World Golf Ranking to reach number one yet not win a major in his career – fellow Englishman Luke Donald is the other.

Westwood is eighth all-time in European Tour wins – in January, he won his 25th at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. That also made him the third player in that tour’s history to win in four different decades, joining Des Smyth and Mark McNulty. Twice, he has held the outright 54-hole lead in a major – the 2010 Masters and the 2013 Open Championship. Both of those tournaments were won by Phil Mickelson.

The numbers say – for now, at least – that Lee is the most accomplished player in the modern era without a major victory.