The final round of the Players Championship could have been titled Three Men Desperately in Search of a Win (for this post, we’ll ignore the subplot titled Pain in the Neck, more on that later).
The leader, Lee Westwood, hadn’t won in his last 125 PGA Tour events since a lone victory in 1998, and had finished second or third in the last three major championships. He was being chased by Robert Allenby, winless in 222 PGA Tour starts since his last win in 2001, and Tim Clark, who had never won in 205 attempts on the PGA Tour.
Clark emerged as the victor, and did so in impressive style, shooting the best round of the day on Sunday with a 67 to beat Allenby by one while Westwood tied for fourth. It relieved Clark of the dreaded distinction of being the best player without a victory on the PGA Tour, though it should be noted that the South African had already won four times overseas.
It doesn’t get him off the following list of active PGA Tour players who haven’t won as much as their records indicate they should: Clark, Chris DiMarco, Luke Donald, Bob Estes, Charles Howell III, Jerry Kelly, and Jeff Maggert. Those are the seven players who have fewer than one victory per 20 top-ten finishes, more than twice as many runner-up finishes as victories, and have finished on the top-40 on the money list at least four times. (The latter provision eliminates players who have been around long enough to accumulate a lot of top-tens but whose overall record doesn’t indicate they should have won much.)
Let’s add Scott Verplank to the list. He has five victories among 88 top-ten finishes, but if a player is good enough to have that many top-tens you would expect a better winning rate. He’s finished second 12 times.
That’s eight players. What do they have in common? Seven of them—all but Howell—are short hitters.
Hmm, maybe they’re not chokers after all. My contention is that their low victory rate is not due to an inability to come through in the clutch, it’s that their type of game makes victories harder to come by. (As for the long-hitting Howell, well, he needs another excuse.)
Short hitters tend to be straight hitters, and thus more consistent. They are steady players who don’t go low as often, and you need to go low to win on the PGA Tour. Being shorter off the tee means they have longer shots into the greens, and it makes sense for them to fire at the flags less often, especially when you consider that on Tour the pins are often located just four paces from the edge of the green.
Clark is the most extreme example, with (now) one victory in 40 top-ten finishes. He finished second eight times before breaking through.
It is certainly true that Clark had golden opportunities on two or three occasions, and blew them with shaky play down the stretch. Maybe he did have some issues with playing under pressure. But the larger issue is that he’s just not the type of player who is going to make birdies in bunches.
To win on the PGA Tour, you’ve got to beat an entire field. That sounds like stating the obvious, but what that means is you’ve got to have a great week. And a player who is more erratic is more likely to do it than a Steady Eddie. A better way to put it is that out of the many players in the field with more volatile games, the likelihood is that one of them will have a great week.
Another criticism sometimes leveled at good players who are light in the win column is that they are content to pick up a check and don’t have the hunger to win. But it’s their style of play, not complacency, that leads to those kinds of results. And it may not be a good idea—or even possible—to try to change their stripes. We have seen many players lose their games when they make swing changes to try to gain distance. And firing at pins from farther back in the fairway is not generally a recipe for success (Lanny Wadkins was a medium-short hitter with an aggressive style, but I can’t think of many others.)
A prominent example of a player who just couldn’t seem to win, even when he was in his prime, is Jeff Maggert. The 46-year-old who is in the twilight of his career has 86 top-tens and 15 runner-up finishes, but only three victories.
Is he a gutless player? Not according to those who played with him for the U.S. in three Ryder Cup matches, where he was considered a good battler and compiled a 6-5 record.
In fact, these players are match-play bulldogs. At last year’s Presidents Cup, Clark was eight-under for 15 holes in beating Zach Johnson in singles. DiMarco (three wins, 12 runner-ups, 60 top-tens) practically carried the U.S. to victory in the 2005 Presidents Cup with a 4-0-1 record. Verplank is a remarkable 10-3-1 in the Ryder and Presidents Cups combined. Luke Donald is 5-1-1 in the Ryder Cup.
The combined record of the above players in Ryder and Presidents Cup competition is 44-31-6 (all but Estes have played in those events). Five of the seven have winning records, while Kelly is at .500 and Clark is close at 6-7-1. Even Howell, who doesn’t otherwise fit the profile, is 5-4.
More evidence that these guys are good in match play comes from the WGC-Accenture Match Play, where Maggert won the 1999 championship to account for one of his few victories and Clark eliminated Tiger Woods last year. (For that matter, Woods has also lost to short-hitting Nick O’Hern.)
Head-to-head these guys are tough competitors—tougher than most, in fact. Their lack of wins doesn’t indicate that they fold under pressure. It shows that when they are matched against an entire field, instead of against a single player, they are likely to be beaten out by the one player, or handful of players, who happen to go very low that particular week.
By the way, Westwood and Allenby weren’t included in the have-trouble-winning list because Westwood has 20 victories on the European Tour and Allenby had four wins early in his PGA Tour career, along with 18 international victories in Australia and Europe. Both are longer-than-average hitters, so their PGA Tour winning slumps can’t be explained in that fashion.
For them, it’s probably bad luck, a few failures at crunch time, and the sheer difficulty of winning against the depth of the PGA Tour. If they keep playing the way they are now, winning is only a matter of time—if that’s any consolation. For Clark, the time finally came.