Is Stricker now the best without a major?

February, 8, 2010

Having won four times in the last two years, tallied four straight top-10 finishes on tour and finished in the top three in six events since the end of last May, Steve Stricker has sparked conversation that he is one of the most under-the-radar stars in sports in the last few years. His unlikely ascension to second in the Official World Golf Rankings has many tabbing him to win his first major in 2010.

But is Stricker the best current player never to have won a major? This week the tour visits Pebble Beach, site of this year's U.S. Open, so why not visit the thought?

Trivia question

Steve Stricker, who entered the final round at last week's Northern Trust Open with a commanding 6-stroke lead, saw his lead dwindle to 2 shots before holding on for the win. Who was the last player to lose a PGA Tour event after holding a 6-shot lead entering the final round? (Answer below.)

A year ago, we compiled a formula that measured the careers of the best players never to have won a major and called it the "Almost Index." At the time, Stricker ranked fifth by that measure, behind Sergio Garcia, Kenny Perry, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy. The formula took into consideration PGA Tour and European Tour career accomplishments, with a heavy emphasis on finishes in majors. Because we always show our work at Numbers Game, the formula breaks down as such:

(2 + [PGA Tour top-10 pct.]) + (1 + [European Tour top-10 pct.]) + PGA Tour wins + (Euro Tour wins x 0.5) + ([Top-10 pct. in majors x 100] x .25) + (major points x 0.1) = Almost Index

Major points are collected as such: Players are awarded points for every major in which they finish in the top 10, on a scale from 1 to 9. A second-place finish is worth 9, a T-2 is 8.5, a third is 8 and so on, with the scale ending at T-10 (0.5 points).

Stricker had an Almost Index score of 17.144 in August, and has seen it bumped to 18.457 after last week's win at the Northern Trust Open. Look at the numbers of the five aforementioned golfers (who still rank as the top five in the Almost Index) before last year's PGA Championship and where they sit heading into this weekend's event:

Almost Index: Then and now

Player Before '09 PGA Today
Sergio Garcia 30.649 30.227
Kenny Perry 22.434 22.360
Lee Westwood 21.997 23.122
Steve Stricker 17.144 18.457
Rory McIlroy 17.332 17.413

This is no mathematical bible for identifying the best golfer never to have won a major, merely a guide and a conversation starter. But now you too can impress your friends with statistical nerdery and a bit of substance to support the notion that Stricker has yet to attain one of the most reluctantly owned titles in pro sports.

While we're on the topic of majors, this week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am undoubtedly will spark all kinds of U.S. Open predictions. Since 2000, the site of the U.S. Open has twice been the site of a PGA Tour event earlier in the year: at Torrey Pines in 2008 and at Pebble in 2000. In each of those instances, the winner of that tournament went on to win the U.S. Open later in the year. And on both occasions, the man who won those tournaments was Tiger Woods.

The defending champion for this week's PGA Tour event is Dustin Johnson, who enters Pebble Beach fresh off a Sunday 66, which staked him to a T-3 finish at Riviera. But in theory, last weekend could have gone much better for Johnson, who held his first career 36-hole lead before shooting a 74 in Round 3. Eight of Johnson's 14 rounds this year have been in the 60s, and he remains one of the biggest hitters on tour, currently sitting at fourth in driving distance (298.8 yards).

Johnson led the field in driving distance in this event last year, en route to his second career PGA Tour win. In three of the past five years, the winner of this event has finished in the top four in driving distance among members of the tournament field. Phil Mickelson was fourth when he won in 2007 and third in 2005.

Speaking of the world's new No. 3 golfer, it's another week, another California course at which Mickelson has had prior success. Phil has won at Pebble Beach three times, but he missed the cut as the defending champion in '08 and didn't fare much better last year (T-55). This comes after finishes of third, first, T-38 and first in a four-year span from 2004-07.

Mickelson's Achilles' heel in last week's event was a four-hole stretch, from 13 to 16, that he played in 6-over for the tournament. He hit only 2 of 8 possible fairways, half the greens in regulation, and failed to save par either time he hit into the bunker on 15. Phil's wildness off the tee is nothing new, but he has been especially shaky to start this season. He has yet to hit more than eight fairways in a round (through two events) and altogether has missed more of them (58) than he has hit (54).

Padraig Harrington -- currently ranked 10th in the world -- will try to rebound this week after missing the cut at Riviera. His 72-73 snapped a streak of six straight top-10 finishes in official PGA Tour events for Paddy, dating back to the WGC-Bridgestone last August.

This will mark the fourth consecutive year Harrington has played in the Pebble Beach event. Since contending finishes in 2007 and '08 at Riviera (T-3rd, seventh), success has been fleeting for Harrington during February's California swing. In four starts, he has missed the cut three times and finished T-24.

Trivia answer

Question: Steve Stricker, who entered the final round at last week's Northern Trust Open with a commanding 6-stroke lead, saw his lead dwindle to 2 shots before holding on for the win. Who was the last player to lose a PGA Tour event after holding a 6-shot lead entering the final round?

Answer: Sergio Garcia, at the 2005 Wachovia Championship.

Ten years ago, when the U.S. Open was played at Pebble -- and the field was playing for second, light years behind Tiger Woods -- Harrington was tied for third through 54 holes and wound up tied for fifth. At the time, it tied for his best finish in a major championship.

One can imagine that Harrington hopes to play like the Woods of 2000 this week at Pebble Beach -- and beyond.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008, and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to



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