Letter from St. Andrews: Worst To Finish First

A year ago, when Phil Mickelson won the Masters, he lost something almost as significant—the title “best player never to win a major championship.” Lefty thereby joined the relieved ranks of David Duval (2001), Mark O’Meara (1998), Davis Love III (1997), Tom Kite (1992), Greg Norman (1986) and Ben Crenshaw (1984) in shedding an unofficial title obnoxiously decreed and disseminated by self-important scribes like me.

Well, thank heavens, there is now no obvious successor, at least not stateside. Go ahead, try to name Mickelson’s heir. You couldn’t nominate Kenny Perry, could you? Brad Faxon? Jay Haas? John Cook? The best I could come up with was, gulp, Scott Hoch.

In Europe, there’s always dear old Monty, but frankly I don’t think he deserves that much credit. I mean, how can he be the best player never to win a major when he is barely the best player never to win a tour event on American soil? There’s Sergio Garcia, I suppose, but he’s a bit young.

Anyway, it’s time we became a bit less nasty, a bit more positive, don’t you think? And so, rather than train our merciless microscope on the hapless underachievers, let’s instead consider the inexplicably victorious. Yes, my fellow Americans, ask not who is the best player never to win a major; ask who is the worst player to have won one!

Or at least allow me to ask. Let’s look at the four majors one by one and weed out the weakest links.

The Masters

Maybe it’s the small elite field, where nearly everyone is a proven winner. Maybe it’s the fact that the course usually takes some knowing—and thus several well-earned invitations—before victory comes. Whatever the reason, there are no Humpty Dumpties on the list of Masters champs.

The two least distinguished are probably Charlie Coody, who birdied two of the last four holes in 1971 to edge Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, but won only two other events in his whole career; and Tommy Aaron, who won only three other titles. But two of those were the prestigious Canadian Open and the Lancome Trophy. Besides, Aaron, like Coody, went on to win on the Champions Tour, and he also holds the Masters record as the oldest guy ever to make the cut, at age 63. Bottom line, the green jacket doesn’t go onto shoulders that slouch.

The U.S. Open

Here we come to some powerfully weak winners. Andy North, of course, gets a lot of abuse, but he doesn’t deserve it. After all, he won our national championship not once but twice—1978 and 1985. Think of him as the worst player to win two majors. Jack Fleck also takes a pounding from the pundits, but his record is far from shameful—two victories besides his gritty playoff win over Hogan in 1955.

No, the battle for Worst First at the Open comes down to two players. In 1969, burly Orville Moody, the crosshand-putting Army sergeant, came from nowhere to beat everyone at Champions Golf Club in Houston, then returned immediately to obscurity. However, in my view the Sarge is narrowly outranked by the champion of 1935.

That year’s Open was played at Oakmont, and incredibly, despite a field that included Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour and the like, the prize went to University of Pittsburgh graduate Sam Parks Jr. Parks had used his connections to play practice rounds on the home course for weeks and it paid off. In spite of an inglorious 299 total—including a final round of 76—he squeaked through for the only win of his career. In less than a decade Parks would be out of golf, working in sales for U.S. Steel.

Interestingly, the flukiest winners of this 144-year-old championship have not popped up until recent years. There’s the defending champion, for example—Todd Hamilton failed seven times before securing his PGA Tour card for the 2004 season. But at least he had proven himself with 11 victories overseas, and no one can argue with the way he stood up to Ernie Els at Troon, head to head for 40 holes.

In 1999 Paul Lawrie was clearly the beneficiary of Jean Van de Velde’s self-destruction at the 72nd hole, but like Hamilton he showed his mettle when it counted, winning the playoff over the Frenchman and 1997 Open champion Justin Leonard. Besides, Lawrie has managed to scrape out a few titles on the European Tour. No, I think we all know who the worst player to win the British Open is: Ben Curtis. The kid had done nothing before his victory at Royal St. George’s in 2003, had no idea what he was doing when he did it, and has done nothing since. I hope he can shed the title, but for now it’s all his.

The PGA Championship

Like the Masters, the PGA can point to a strong string of champions. Indeed, there is just one player whose replica of the Wanamaker Trophy is the sole piece of silver on his mantle: Shaun Micheel. Two years ago, when Micheel struck that 175-yard 7-iron an inch from the final hole at Oak Hill, he electrified us all. Otherwise, over seven years on tour, he has put us to sleep.

There you have it—three strong contenders: Sam Parks Jr. (1935 U.S. Open), Ben Curtis (2003 British Open) and Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA Championship). So who’s the loser of all winners, the worst player ever to win a major? With apologies: Hilary Lunke, 2003 U.S. Women’s Open champion.