For many in this country and around the world, the season of spring is signified not by the vernal equinox, but by the annual landmarks of the sports calendar.
Trivia questionThis year marks the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' final major victory at the 1986 Masters. Who set the course record, with a 63, at Augusta that year? (Answer below.)
College basketball fans might say it's the weekend of the Final Four. For many, it's Opening Day in Major League Baseball.
But for us at Numbers Game, spring means pristine, pine-lined fairways in Georgia. It means memories of Palmer, Nicklaus, Mickelson and Woods. It means Augusta National and the battle for the green jacket.
For six of the last eight major champions, the major victory was their first. There have been nine different winners in the last nine majors played. The champions of last year's U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship won not only their first major but their first PGA Tour event.
In that vein, we dust off the "Almost Index," a formula created in an attempt to deduce who is the best player in the world without a major championship.
A refresher on the formula: In creating this statistic, we wanted to place a high emphasis on performance in major championships without an actual win -- i.e., "almost" breaking through. We also tried to weigh successes on the PGA and European tours accordingly to gauge how viable the player's career had been up to that point in non-majors, as well. Below is the formula, mapped out for you to examine:
(2 + [PGA Tour top 10 pct.]) + (1 + [European Tour top 10 pct.]) + PGA Tour wins + (European Tour wins x 0.5) + ([Top 10 pct. in majors x 100] x 0.25) + (major points x 0.1) = Almost Index
Major points are collected like this: Players are given points in every major in which they finished in the top 10, on a scale from 1 to 9. A second-place finish is a 9, a T-2 is an 8.5, a third is an 8, and so on, with the scale ending at T-10 (.5 points).
Let's run down the dubious list of leaders in this year's Masters field, working back from 10 to 1:
Robyn Beck/Getty ImagesDustin Johnson might be the poster child for the Almost Index, especially after fumbling his 54-hole lead at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
10. Dustin Johnson
Almost Index score: 15.387
Johnson's 2010 season in major championships basically defined the word "almost." He held the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach before imploding with a front-nine 42 on Sunday. At the PGA Championship, it appeared he had earned a spot in a playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer -- until the most famous club-grounding penalty of all time was enforced. In nine career majors, Johnson has finished in the top 10 three times, and his four PGA Tour wins give a big boost to his score.
9. Stuart Appleby
Almost Index score: 16.133
Appleby comes in at No. 9 on this list, largely due to his nine career PGA Tour wins, which account for more than half his score. Appleby hasn't finished higher than T-14 in a major in the past three years, and he didn't finish in the top 20 in any major last year. In 13 starts at Augusta, he has one career top-10.
8. Henrik Stenson
Almost Index score: 16.136
The biggest contributors to Stenson's point total are his five career top-10 finishes in majors -- more specifically, his two T-3 finishes at the Open Championship in the past three years. "Almost" isn't exactly the word for Stenson at Augusta, though. His best career finish in five starts? A tie for 17th, which he has done twice.
7. Miguel Angel Jimenez
Almost Index score: 16.328
"The Mechanic" is one of the most entertaining players in the world to watch. Sadly, for U.S. golf fans who aren't tuned in to early-morning tape-delayed European Tour action, the majors are the only chance to see the Scotch-savoring shot-maker. Jimenez gets the biggest chunk of his Almost Index points from his 14 European Tour victories. His best career Masters finish was a tie for eighth in 2008.
6. K.J. Choi
Almost Index score: 16.853
Choi got a firsthand account of the Tiger-returns circus at last year's Masters, as he was grouped with Woods for all four rounds of the tournament. How did Choi respond to the environment? A tie for fourth, which is his second-best major finish. Choi's best career finish in a major also came at Augusta National, where he finished solo third in 2004.
5. Adam Scott
Almost Index score: 16.991
We're years removed from Adam Scott's tie for third at the 2006 PGA Championship, his best career finish in a major. Scott hasn't finished in the top 10 at any of the four biggies since then -- 16 starts ago. Scott's seven PGA Tour wins, the most recent coming at the Valero Texas Open last year, give his score the biggest lift.
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy has played in just nine career major championships, yet owns four top-10 finishes over that span.
4. Rory McIlroy
Almost Index score: 18.570
McIlroy's score is probably the biggest surprise on this list, primarily because his career is so young. Because of the nature of the formula, though, his dearth of starts in majors -- and McIlroy's success in the starts he does have -- is precisely what drives his score so high.
Consider this: McIlroy has top-three finishes in three of the last five major championships played. Overall, he has four top-10s in nine career starts in majors. The formula deduces who the best player in the world is lacking a major victory -- and the incredible potential McIlroy has shown puts him in the conversation.
3. Steve Stricker
Almost Index score: 19.759
With nine PGA Tour wins spanning 16 years, Stricker already has had a long and successful PGA Tour career -- even if he never wins a major championship. No one on our list has won more tour events in his career than Stricker (Appleby also has nine), who at one point last year had a chance to become the No. 1 golfer in the world. Stricker's best major finish came at the '98 PGA (second), and his best finish at Augusta was a T-6 in 2009.
2. Lee Westwood
Almost Index score: 26.682
The world's No. 2 golfer embodies the epitome of what this list represents, especially during the past three years. Since the beginning of 2008, Westwood has finished in the top three in five different major championships. He was runner-up twice last year: at Augusta, where he was the 54-hole leader, and at the Open Championship, where Louis Oosthuizen removed all drama from the proceedings. Westwood has won 20 times on the European Tour and was the man to unseat Tiger Woods as No. 1 last Halloween. No one will be shocked if he finally wins one this week in Georgia.
Question: Who set the course record at the 1986 Masters?
Answer: Nick Price.
1. Sergio Garcia
Almost Index score: 29.345
With Garcia's struggles over the past few years, it's worth reminding people how good he has been in majors (sans victory, of course) over the course of his career. He has been runner-up three times, finished third twice, and ranked top five a total of nine times in his career. His 74.5 major points dwarf the total of everyone else on this list (Westwood is a distant second, with 62).
Garcia has been less than impressive recently, failing to notch a top-10 finish in a major in the past two years. He hasn't won at all on the PGA Tour since the 2008 Players Championship. Still, his body of work places him atop the dubious Almost Index list.
Numbers Game is a weekly stat-centric look at the PGA Tour.
Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.