Golf's Nearly Men desperate to check out at The Open


When Dustin Johnson claimed the U.S. Open title last month, he snipped off a tag that must have been beginning to irritate him something rotten.

Until his Oakmont success, Johnson belonged to a club that nobody willingly signs up to and every single member wants to leave: The Nearly Men.

It's curious that a club so loathed by its representatives requires of them such a remarkably high level of consistency, for all among its number have proven themselves able to challenge regularly at major events.

But what also defines them is their failure to turn that consistency into glory. Think Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, who will try again at Troon this week to break with history and end their major droughts at The Open.

And think too of Colin Montgomerie, second in line to Tiger Woods to claim the Claret Jug in 2005 and back for one last attempt more than a decade later.

Johnson was in danger of becoming one of The Nearly Men's most prolific members, his CV showing 11 top-10 finishes at majors without occupying the summit at the only time when it really counts.

Indeed, the year prior to handing in his membership card after that farcical finish in Pennsylvania - where a retrospective penalty stroke failed to derail his dream - Johnson's vulnerability in the face of potential triumph was at its most apparent.

There was nothing easy about his 12-foot eagle putt that would have spared him another 12 months of people questioning his bottle, but to miss the gimme that followed and squander even a play-off showdown with Jordan Spieth at Chambers Bay underlined Johnson's apparent fragility.

Yet the American kept on going at it, thrusting himself into the pressure-cooker environment of being in contention to claim one of golf's greatest prizes, somehow still believing, despite it all, that destiny would finally call his name.

At the very next opportunity on home soil Johnson was in the mix again, leading the US PGA Championship after the first round, while he was also in contention at this year's Masters, where a proven winner showed beyond doubt that the nerves can bring the best of us to our knees.

As Spieth collapsed and Danny Willett jumped the queue of waiting Nearly Men to claim a major on only his second real crack, Johnson collected another 'close but no cigar' rosette.

And so it has gone for the likes of Garcia and Westwood, who - having threatened and ultimately relented at Oakmont - must have watched with some ambivalence as Johnson departed their ranks to sit in the more esteemed company of major winners.

Both enjoy greater popularity among fans than the average golfer and their status as Nearly Men is not unrelated to that fact.

The watching public is surely obliged to feel a little more empathy towards two players who have between them recorded 39 top-10 finishes at the sport's four headline events.

And you can't get more 'nearly' than second, a spot filled four times by the Spaniard and three by the Englishman. Montgomerie, a five-time runner-up, knows their pain all too well.

Garcia has taken final-round leads and turned them into play-off heartache, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and left shards of his shattered dreams strewn across 18th fairways and greens.

Westwood has woken on a Sunday morning at Augusta with good cause to ponder how he might look bedecked in a green jacket, only to end the day watching Phil Mickelson try one on for size for a third time.

If the pain of failure is a driving force for success, it's only a matter of time - a luxury not afforded to Montgomerie, for whom this is likely to be his last major - before the likes of Garcia and Westwood have their day in the sun.

That might come at Troon this Sunday. But one thing is for sure, golf will always have a place for The Nearly Men.