Talk to any of the top players in golf, and they’ll tell you their goals at major championships are quite simple. Because winning can often be the result of a lucky bounce or ridiculous break, golfers will give you some variation of the narrative that all they’re trying to do is give themselves a shot entering the final round — a chance with 18 holes left to play. If a golfer is teeing off late in the final round, no matter what happens, that’s often a successful week.
Look at this year’s U.S. Open. Plenty of golfers were in contention to win that event at Torrey Pines after 54 holes. Jon Rahm was one of them. He got a huge break when he hit a tee shot over a fence on the 9th hole in the final round, got a free drop and went on to make birdie. That doesn’t mean that Louis Oosthuizen or Harris English had bad weeks. They just didn’t get the breaks (or hit the putts) they needed on Sunday.
Even being in that position on a Sunday rarely results in a major championship win. Sometimes the leader shoots 65 and pulls away from the entire pack. Sometimes you shoot 77 and completely eject. Golf is golf, but having a real chance at a major championship is what makes entire seasons successful or unsuccessful.
This begs the question of what having a shot to win a major actually means. There are a million ways to define this, and Data Golf has a nice tool that can give you a player’s stats when he enters a final round in a given position for the last several years, but I wanted to simplify it. So I went back and looked at every 54-hole leaderboard since the turn of the century.
That’s 87 major championships in all (the 2020 Open Championship was canceled). I looked at who was leading and who was near the lead, and I defined being in contention at a major by looking at the board with 18 holes to go and including the following golfers.
- Everyone within one or two strokes
- Everyone within three strokes (with fewer than seven golfers in front of them)
- Everyone within four strokes (with fewer than six golfers in front of them)
- Everyone within five strokes (with fewer than five golfers in front of them)
This draws a pretty nice circle around the last 87 leaderboards after 54 holes, and there are only a handful of major winners — we’ll get to those in a minute — who have landed outside of these criteria going into the final round on a Sunday.
Here are two examples of the criteria above.
1. 2021 Masters: Hideki Matsuyama led Saturday night at 11 under. Marc Leishman, Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele and Will Zalatoris were all tied for second at 7 under. By my definition — within four strokes with fewer than six guys in front of you — all five of those golfers were in contention, and the way things played out on Sunday, they were in fact that only golfers who had a real chance of winning. Corey Conners was five back, but he did not have fewer than five guys in front of him, so he did not have a real chance by this definition.
2. 2019 PGA Championship: Brooks Koepka led by seven over Dustin Johnson, Luke List, Harold Varner III and Jazz Janewattananond (whom I forgot about!). By my definition, if you’re not within five, you don’t have a real shot. Therefore, Koepka was the only golfer at that particular major who actually had a chance of winning. And then he won.
As far as the golfers who have fallen outside this criteria, there’s only five of them over the last 22 years, and they all came at one of the Opens.
- 2013 Open Championship: Phil Mickelson (five back with eight golfers in front of him)
- 2012 Open Championship: Ernie Els (six back with three golfers in front of him)
- 2012 U.S. Open: Webb Simpson (four back with seven golfers in front of him)
- 2007 Open Championship: Padraig Harrington (six back with two golfers in front of him)
- 2007 U.S. Open: Angel Cabrera (four back with six golfers in front of him)
These were all extraordinary outliers as the other 82 champs (94.3%) fell inside our criteria. And while you could feasibly widen the net to include these five winners, that brings too many golfers into the bucket of who can win based on the leaderboard after the third round. Rather, it’s best to look at these wins as minor miracles — Mickelson playing the round of his life in 2013, Adam Scott falling apart ahead of Els in 2012 — than reasons to broaden the group of golfers who are considered to have a real chance going into the final round.
So what are the takeaways from this compilation of research? I’m glad you asked.
Six per tournament: Since 2000, an average of six golfers per major championship (509 in total) had a real shot to win on Sunday. This passes the eye test, though there are events (2019 PGA) where that number obviously drops and other events (2020 PGA) where it increases. At that 2020 PGA, 12 golfers went into the final round at or within three of the lead. By my definition, they all had a real shot at winning, which is exactly how Sunday played out.
Morikawa is 2 for 2: He’s had a couple real shots (two back with three in front of him at the 2020 PGA, one back with one golfer in front of him at the 2021 Open), and each resulted in a win. That conversion rate won’t last forever, which is instructive of both his future as well as the incredible — even historic — start he’s gotten off to as a professional.
Best and worst: The best converters of the fewest opportunities include Bubba Watson (2 for 3), Martin Kaymer (2 for 3), Padraig Harrington (3 for 5!), Zach Johnson (2 for 4), Brooks Koepka (4 for 9), Rory McIlroy (4 for 9) and Jordan Spieth (3 for 10).
The worst converters of the most opportunities include Henrik Stenson (1 for 8), Jim Furyk (1 for 8), Adam Scott (1 for 9), Jason Day (1 for 11), Louis Oosthuizen (1 for 11), Justin Rose (1 for 11), Sergio Garcia (1 for 12), Rickie Fowler (0 for 8), Lee Westwood (0 for 7) and Thomas Bjorn (0 for 7).
Looking at both lists, there are no real surprises based on what we’ve watched for the last 20 years. Again, some of this is uncontrollable on the final day by these players. For example, Dylan Frittelli had a shot at the 2020 Masters, according to my definition, but there was no chance of him catching Dustin Johnson on Sunday based on the way D.J. played, which counts against Frittelli’s total.
The numbers do tell an interesting story when you look at the bigger-picture story with golfers like Westwood, though. His numbers (0 for 7) tell us he probably should have won at least one. Also, a lot of the guys who have bad conversion rates would probably tell you they should have done more on Thursday-Saturday.
Let’s talk about Tiger: He’s 13 for 26 in this span of time. The most opportunities and the most conversions, more than double Mickelson (6 for 20). A 50% conversion rate on 26 real shots at winning major over the last 20 years is difficult to comprehend when the only other guys who are around those conversion rate numbers have only won one, two or three majors.
What it means for Rory: McIlroy is another interesting case study. Until more recently, he had converted nearly every opportunity he’d had going into the final round of a major. Like Morikawa right now, I think that high conversion rate earlier in his career foretold of some famine or mean reversion later, which is exactly what he’s experienced with near misses at the 2018 Masters, 2018 Open Championship and 2021 U.S. Open.
Of course, the game of golf consists of so many variables, especially at the game’s highest levels, which is part of what makes it so much fun. You might not think that the majority of Jason Day’s 11 shots at majors were as real as those attempted by Jordan Spieth. Or if you went back and tallied up all of Westwood’s near misses, you might see that, in the majority of those majors, the golfers ahead of him pulled away in ways with which he could not contend.
Regardless, this is the kind of offseason chatter that carries through those nasty winter months with the major season on the horizon and the Masters just over 100 days away. The kind of enjoyable, arguable topic that has interesting highlights and tenets but is nonetheless malleable, which, when you think about it, sounds a lot like golf itself.