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77TH PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: RIVIERA : A Major Pain : Pavin Won at Shinnecock, So Now the Title is Love's and He'd Love to Be Rid of It

August 07, 1995|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ordinarily, as far as lists go, it's always nice to be on the ones that start with the word best .

You know, like "best actor," "best-dressed" or "best friend." Even "best cappuccino."

But there is a huge exception to this rule in golf, where the one thing guaranteed to clear a locker room quicker than John Daly looking for a chocolate chip muffin is this: "The best player never to have won a major ."

It's a tag nobody wants, not really, not if one's being honest. It's supposed to be some kind of compliment, but it comes across more like some sneaky little rip job, a cold, steel-shafted sand wedge rapping you across the knuckles.

How good can you be . . . if you haven't won a major, for birdie's sake?

Maybe that's why Corey Pavin absolutely sprinted up the 18th fairway at Shinnecock Hills to check where his ball landed after smoking a four-wood to the shadow of the flagstick on the 72nd hole, a shot that basically won the U.S. Open.

What that victory meant to Pavin was that he would no longer be known as the best player never to have won a major . . . that and the glory of winning the national championship, of course.

At the time, Pavin compared winning the U.S. Open to "getting a monkey off my back."

Well, that monkey has a new home address now, and it happens to be wherever Davis Love III is standing.

Maybe Love feels the same as Pavin, who said he never was too upset about the tag, after all.

"It's just one of those things that started getting said," Pavin said. "People thought it was a neat thing and it got picked up.

"It was never a big deal to me, never bothered me from a personal standpoint. What mattered was that winning a major was something I wanted to achieve and I hadn't, so it was frustrating from a personal achievement standpoint."

It's a mature response, all right. But it probably is a lot easier saying stuff like that since it's coming from a person fresh from evicting that monkey.

Anyway, it's a problem for Love now, not for Pavin, who didn't always have it. It belonged to other people.

Before Pavin, the title of the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major belonged to Paul Azinger. Then Azinger won the 1993 PGA Championship at Inverness.

Before Azinger, it was Nick Price. Then Price won the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive.

Before Price, it was Tom Kite. Then Kite won the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Before Kite, it was Fred Couples. Then Couples won the 1992 Masters.

Before Couples, it was Payne Stewart. Then Stewart won the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes.

Before Stewart, it was Curtis Strange. Then Strange won the 1988 U.S. Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

And so it goes.

Love is generally regarded as the current leader in the clubhouse, although he could certainly pass the tag on to another lucky golfer this week.

At 31, Love can flat-out play. He already has won nine times and banked more than $5.4 million.

He finished second to Ben Crenshaw in the Masters and tied for fourth in the U.S. Open--his first top-10 finishes in majors in his career.

Even though Love faltered at St. Andrews, he knows he can play well at Riviera, where Couples beat him in a playoff to win the 1992 L.A. Open.

In the best player-no major derby, there remain other contenders challenging Love. One of them is Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, who came close in the U.S. Open won by Kite at Pebble Beach and again in the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where Ernie Els beat him in a three-way playoff that included Loren Roberts.

A couple of other candidates for Love's title are Phil Mickelson, David Frost and Tom Lehman.

Actually, there may be hope for Love and the rest.

Pavin's victory at Shinnecock continued something of a recent trend of success in majors for those who previously had been at a major disadvantage.

Golf World figured it up and reported that 11 of the last 23 major titles have been won by first-timers in the major titles club, beginning with Ian Woosnam in the 1991 Masters.

Go figure.

Anyway, it's Love's problem now. Kite said he never really got used to the tag, basically because it made him, well, mad.

"I always thought of it as sort of a negative," Kite said. "So I turned it into a positive."

How?

"I'd always say, 'The best player never to have won a major,' then I'd add one word-- yet ," Kite said.

Sounds pretty simple. Maybe the tag of 'the best player never to have won a major' just doesn't work any more. Maybe the media should write about something else, like the loft on wedges.

Maybe this is one title that ought to go away. Maybe we've even heard the last of it. Is that possible?

Not yet.

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