AUGUSTA, GA. It's been said, to the point of overkill, major championships determine lasting legacies. Undoubtedly true. The first round of the 87th Masters created a mix and match at the top of the leaderboard.
Veteran players displayed fine form with the likes of Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka and a resurgent Jason Day and Gary Woodland doing so. Interestingly, the common denominator with each of the aforementioned is all have won major events. In Koepka's case, a total of four.
In recent years the media has created the dubious tagline "best player never to have won a major" and it's the kind of question that outlines a clear backhanded compliment.
It clearly salutes the skill level of the player(s) named but it also indicates one's overall standing in the game cannot elevate itself to a higher position until a major event is won.
The weight of potential has always been a constant anchor around the necks of many talented players since competitive golf has been played. Potential indicates the belief a given golfer should accomplish a certain number of results that justify the usage of the word. But what others think someone should achieve may not exactly follow the preordained script.
The definition of greatness is now centered on performance tied to The Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and The Open Championship. There are other key events played during the year but one's ultimate performance in these events determines if one's name merits pages in a book or a mere footnote given.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 6, 2023
Throughout his lengthy career, Jack Nicklaus planned his yearly schedule in order to be thoroughly prepared for the four majors. The same course of action was followed by Tiger Woods. Both men were able to secure their first major event soon after turning professional. This week's gathering in Augusta provides a clear pathway to greatness. For those who get into contention and come up short the pressure to succeed can build up until the barrier is breached.
Before winning the 2004 Masters, Phil Mickelson was dogged by media on when he would break through and claim his first major title. Lefty turned professional in 1992 and the general belief was that the talented golfer would quickly snare a number of major championships. It took twelve years to pass before that moment happened at The Masters.
Wherever Mickelson played before securing The Green Jacket he was asked countless times about not having won such an event. Mickelson knew full well that failure in those specific events is the ultimate barometer when careers are eventually assessed.
The weight of that pressure can be enormous and it can also erode a player's confidence going forward. Some have been able to use a failure as a way to quickly bounce back.
The 2011 Masters proved to be a downside for Rory McIlroy when he simply imploded over the final nine holes. McIlroy was able to use that event as a motivator and when the next major was played that year in the U.S. Open at Congressional, he produced an epic four-round record performance with a score of 268 and an eight-stroke victory.
The 2023 Masters has a number of talented players fully capable of achieving the high bar of expectations set for them.
Among the co-leaders is 25-year-old Viktor Hovland. The Dane came to public attention with a dominant performance in claiming the 2018 U.S. Amateur. His professional career has seen steady performances with seven worldwide wins. But when assessing his performances in the majors he has only secured one top-ten finish.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 6, 2023
Should the 9th ranked player in the world continue to remain at the top of the leaderboard the predictable question of what winning a first major will mean for him will surely be asked. Hovland's standing in the sport will be determined by his play for the final three rounds.
Just two shots off the lead is the promising new talent of Cameron Young. Last year's PGA TOUR rookie-of-the-year has demonstrated consistent play in the big events. The 25-year-old New York native already has two top three finishes in the majors. Unlike Hovland, the 14th ranked player has not won on the PGA TOUR to date.
However, the two players facing the more immediate task of shedding the "best player never to have won a major championship" are Californians Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. Schauffele was paired with Hovland and 15-time major winner Woods for the first round of this year's Masters and will play together again for the second round.
The 29-year-old showed solid form in posting a four-under-par 68 in the first eighteen holes of play. Ranked 7th in the world his past performances in the majors have provided consistent effort. There have been top ten finishes in each of the four, including two runner-up finishes with one of them coming in the 2019 Masters to Tiger Woods. However, it was two years later in 2021 when Schauffele mounted a furious comeback effort to get within two shots of leader Hideki Matsuyama before rinsing his tee shot into the pond at the 16th hole.
Will those memories linger for him at this week's Masters? That's hard to say with any certainty. There is little question Schauffele has immense talent with ten worldwide wins, seven coming on the PGA TOUR. Yet should he remain among the leaders heading into the final eighteen holes he will be asked about being able to break the barrier in not having won a major event.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 6, 2023
Being able to secure a major victory is also front and center for Patrick Cantlay. The 31-year-old has displayed the wherewithal to play at a high level with 9 professional wins and 8 of them on the PGA TOUR. In the major championships the 4th ranked player in the world has only one top five performance to date.
Cantlay started his first round with a one-under-par 71 and needs to raise his game to climb the leaderboard. Should he do so the question about the significance of a Green Jacket will certainly be asked.
And then there is Max Homa. Bursting on the scene recently, the 5th ranked player has won three times since the start of 2022. The 32-year-old has yet to finish in the top ten in any of the major events. Homa's first round 71 has him trailing by six shots.
Winning a major championship rests more on than simply the talent a given golfer has. It means breaking through and hitting the crucial shots when needed. The mental chess match is equally present in beating back the demons that can resurface from years past. Throughout golf's history there have been players who could not do so. Names such as Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper, Bruce Crampton and, more recently, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood are prominent players who each had solid careers but will ultimately be forever defined by having a career that drew blanks in the major events.
Is it fair for that to be the case?
You would be hard pressed to find a better resume than Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper’s without a major victory on it.
Only 17 players in history have recorded 30 wins on the PGA Tour & poor Cooper is the only won without a major.
— Society of Golf Historians (@SHistorians) October 3, 2022
Golf, like other sports, is about winning when it counts and the platform each of golf's four major events provides is the lasting word when careers are assessed.
Getting the monkey off one's back is no small task but for each golfer doing so the joy in never having to answer that dubious tagline is one to be forever relished.
The proof is seeing the sense of relief and satisfaction on their face.
Tiger's Discomfort during the 1st round
It was hard to watch the obvious pain Tiger Woods endured during his first round at this year's Masters. The five-time Masters champion was paired with first-round co-leader Hovland and Schauffele and his score of 74 clearly showed the gap that exists for him now against the world's best players.
This week's Masters marks only his second competitive event in 2023 and the physicality of walking the hilly property at Augusta National was there to see as he trudged slowly around the course.
"I can hit a lot of shots but the difficulty for me is going to be the walking going forward," said Woods. It is what it is. I wish it could be easier. I've got three more years (until he is eligible for the PGA TOUR Champions), when I get the little buggy and be out there with Fred (Couples) but until then no buggy."
Woods has a streak of 22 consecutive cuts made at Augusta which is one off the record set by Couples and Gary Player. That streak is now in jeopardy. The same can be said about whether Woods will ever mount another serious threat in a major event again.