By Brian Keogh
Majors. They are the ultimate badge of honour in the game of professional golf, yet even if a player manages to win one, it is no guarantee that he will be more respected by his peers than a man with none.
Is Colin Montgomerie - a player with five runner up finishes in the four big ones - a lesser player than Todd Hamilton or Ben Curtis, Paul Lawrie, Mark Brooks or even Geoff Ogilvy? Will Darren Clarke or Padraig Harrington be considered inferior to 1947 Open champion Fred Daly if they finish their careers without at least one major on the mantelpiece?
History will sort that one out and while you’d have to think that the answer is no, golfers and golf fans do not suffer the failures of their heroes gladly, even if those so-called failures were often due to the brilliance or good fortune of others.
The much-maligned Greg Norman won The Open Championship twice, in 1986 and 1993. Yet he may be remembered as the man who completed the cruelly named ‘Saturday Slam’ of 1986, when he led all four majors going into the final round but ‘only’ managed to win the Claret Jug.
In common with Craig Wood, the great American player of the 30s and 40s, Norman lost play-offs in all four of the major championships and suffered
more than his share of painful defeats.
His meltdowns are legendary but it is often forgotten how Bob Tway holed a greenside bunker shot to win the US PGA in 1986 or that 45-yard chip shot by Larry Mize on the second play-off hole at the Masters the following year.
Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors but it is safe to assume that no-one will ever come close to beating his astonishing record of 19 second places or 46 top three finishes in 163 major starts.
Being there is what counts and when we consider the flawed genius of players such as Montgomerie, or Phil Mickelson for that matter, you can understand why why command such respect from their peers. It was interesting to note, when the subject came up during the recent Target World Challenge in California, how quickly both Davis Love and Harrington rose to the defence of two of world golf’s biggest personalities.
Mickelson has only recently shaken off his hoodoo in the majors, yet the American public and press are finding it hard to forgive him for the way he appeared to throw away the US Open at Winged Foot this year.
"He (Phil) had a lot of chances in the majors, and he played awfully well," Love argued. "He didn't play well all that day, you know, and I think he didn't ever really give himself a chance. He fought hard to stay in it. When you look at it from a player's perspective, he probably thinks he was lucky to have a chance coming down the stretch the way he was driving it.
"I know the year before when he won the PGA, I missed so many fairways that there was no way I could beat him. That's just the way it goes sometimes. I think he's in a pretty good place confidence wise right now."
Some of the sharper comments on major failures came from the young Australian Adam Scott, who spoke of Montgomerie in the past tense as a major contender.
"You look at a guy like Greg Norman or Colin Montgomerie, and they could be multiple, multiple major winners, and they just weren't for whatever reason," Scott said. "Some were bad breaks and some were bad shots, but it's definitely career defining, a major."
Harrington has had his chances in the majors and when asked if he could take a mulligan in life, he didn’t dwell long before nominating his tee shot on the 72nd hole in the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield, where a bogey cost him his place in the play-off.
But he baulked at the suggestion that Montgomerie had a weakness down the stretch, despite his costly 72nd hole double bogey at Winged Foot.
"I don’t know how you could say that Monty has a weakness," he said. "He has made it to two play-offs in the US Open, so he has tied it twice. This was the only one where you could say he blew up.
"He hit a bad shot. Fine. It was unfortunate for him that he had to stand over it a while and he changed clubs - a bit of this, a bit of that - but I wouldn’t hang someone over one bad shot.
"Monty has won more tournaments than he has ever lost. I would say that rather than a player who struggles, he is a player who is very good under pressure and very good mentally."
As Monty himself said: "If I can cock up in a tournament over a course that is 7,400 yards, par 70 and still finish second, that is encouraging. I am physically able, I know what I am doing and I can cope with the pressure, as the Ryder Cup proves. I am a bit like Padraig - looking forward to the next five years."
History, no doubt, will have the final say.