By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood must be wondering if it will be their turn to leave the list of ‘best yet to win a major’ at next week’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey.
It has been the year of the breakthrough in major golf with England’s Danny Willett at the Masters, American Dustin Johnson at the U.S. Open and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson at the British Open all registering their maiden majors.
And the winners have run the age gamut, with Willett (28) representing the 20-somethings, Johnson (32) the 30-year-old prime timers, and Stenson (40) scoring one for the mature set.
The world golf rankings offer two prime candidates for the PGA title to make it a 2016 majors sweep for first-time winners in seventh-ranked Fowler and evergreen candidate Garcia, the world No. 10.
Spain’s Garcia first threatened to break through when he chased after winner Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA at Medinah.
Another notable player who has come agonisingly close to lifting a major trophy is 43-year-old Englishman Westwood.
The 37th-ranked Westood has nine top-three finishes in the majors, including three as runner-up.
Hopes generally run high for a major title breakthrough at the PGA.
Five of the last seven winners of the PGA were first-time major champions, the latest being world number one Jason Day, who last year shattered scoring records with his triumph at Whistling Straits.
Jason Dufner (2013), Keegan Bradley (2011), Martin Kaymer (2010) and Yang Yong-eun of South Korea (2009) also got into the major win column at the PGA.
Major success was also enjoyed for the first time by 14 of 18 PGA Championship winners from 1986 to 2003, including Payne Stewart, John Daly, Nick Price, Davis Love and Vijay Singh.
The set-up of the PGA Championship is most familiar among the majors to the majority of professionals competing and often promotes aggressive play.
The Masters, the only major played on the same course each year, relies heavily on experience at Augusta National in dealing with the complexities of the notoriously fast, sloping greens.
The U.S. Open generally aims to make par a coveted score by narrowing fairways and lining them with punishing rough while keeping the speed up on the greens, while the British Open often has extreme weather and wind for players to contend with.
No matter how playable Baltusrol, where Mickelson won the 2005 PGA title with a four-under total, proves to be no one is likely to match the birdie barrage produced by Stenson and Mickelson in the Open at Royal Troon last week.
The duo battered the Scottish course as the Swede shot a closing 63 to win with a record 20-under-par total of 264 for a three-shot win over Mickelson (65).
The 46-year-old Mickelson, meanwhile, returns to the scene of one his five major triumphs.
In the 2005 PGA, Big Lefty came back on Monday morning to finish a weather-delayed final round at A.W. Tillinghast’s Baltusrol layout.
Mickelson worked his short game magic by pitching up to within two feet from heavy rough to birdie the last hole for a one-shot win over Australian Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.
Stenson is part of a power trio playing together for the first two rounds, teeing off on Thursday from the first tee at 1:45 PM ET (1745 GMT) with the year’s other major winners, Willett and Johnson.
Defending champion Day plays in the morning wave of the opening round with world number four Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Mickelson from the 10th tee at 8:30 AM ET.
Jordan Spieth sets off with double Masters winner Bubba Watson and Garcia at 1:25 PM from the first, while Fowler starts at 7:40 AM from 10 with fellow American Zach Johnson and South African Ernie Els.
Westwood tees off for the year’s final major at 8:10 AM from the 10th with Brandt Snedeker and his fellow American Brooks Koepka.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Andrew Both)