Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

The Best Golfer to Never Play in a Major

Here in the middle of a stretch of four major championships in five months, it’s common to hear commentators or pundits ask who the best player to have never won a major is. We like to check guys off this list as they win, and 2013 has been a banner year as Adam Scott and Justin Rose have already eliminated themselves from the discussion with their wins at The Masters and US Open. However, this is not that interesting of a topic to talk about, largely because the answer rarely changes. The elimination of Scott and Rose this year is extremely uncommon; while many of the recent winners have been very good players, only Rory McIlroy in 2011 can really have been considered to have checked a name off the “best golfer to have never won a major” list.

More interesting, however, is who is the best golfer who has never played in a major. Obviously with the qualification criteria into the Majors universally accepting all golfers in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, along with other criteria like accepting winners of PGA Tour events, participants in the previous year’s Tour Championship, and the top 20/50/70 on the FedEx Cup and/or Race to Dubai rankings, it is very likely that most notable and highly ranked golfers will earn a place in a major championship field. In addition, several of the events give automatic entries to winners of significant amateur events – how Matteo Manassero, Rory McIlroy, and others played their first majors. However, inevitably some talented golfers will fall through the cracks, possibly because they’ve recently earned a place on the PGA or European Tour or because they haven’t managed to earn their way in through US Open or British Open qualification.

The criterion I will use is my own Z-Score Rankings, weighted for recent performance and regressed based on how many rounds a golfer has completed in the last two years.

Until the most recent US Open, the answer to the question was most likely Billy Horschel. Horschel had put together a pair of rather mediocre seasons since earning his PGA Tour card in 2011, ranking around Tour average. However, his first five months of 2013 were superlative, including his maiden PGA Tour victory. With Horschel now eliminated from the list, let’s examine some of the candidates for the title.

First up is Canada’s Graham DeLaet. DeLaet earned his Tour card in 2010 and put together an above-average season by Z-Score, earning his 2011 Tour card with a 100th place finish on the money list. After being injured for almost all of 2011, DeLaet entered 2012 on a medical exemption and secured his 2013 card with another above-average performance. In 2013 he’s really taken off, though, culminating in a career-best 3rd at the recent Travelers Championship. His 2013 ranks 26th in the world and his weighted regressed Z-Score is -0.31 (35th in the world).

The only other reasonable candidate is Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Aphibarnrat earned his first European Tour victory at this spring’s Malaysian Open and has put together a very strong resume of rounds on the European Tour over the past three seasons. His weighted, regressed Z-Score is -0.22 (71st in the world), dragged down slightly because of the small number (57) of rounds I have recorded since 2011. In any case, Aphibarnrat has earned his way into The Open Championship at Muirfield next month.

DeLaet, however, still finds himself on the outside looking in. It is likely that he’ll be exempted into the PGA Championship due to his position in the OWGR top 100, as it’s extremely unlikely (impossible really) that he’ll fall out of the top 100.

Once those two are eliminated, next up is American Richard H. Lee, a back-to-back survivor of PGA Tour Qualifying School. Lee has played reasonably well in his first two seasons on Tour, sitting just inside the top 100 on my Z-Score Rankings. Lee is not qualified for either of this year’s Majors and, sitting 166th in the OWGR, looks unlikely to earn his way in. It is possible he’ll finish in the top 70 of the special August 2012-August 2013 money list that earns qualification to the PGA Championship. Most likely, Richard H. Lee will enter 2014 as the world’s best player to have never played in a Major Championship.

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