KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Perhaps the last place any of the 156 players in the PGA field want to be this week is in the lead after 54 holes.
So-called “Position A” has been anything but in 2012, with only 11 of 34 third-round leaders on the PGA Tour actually winning. That means 23 times – including all three majors – the player starting with the lead Sunday failed to hang on.
In the majors, the winner hasn’t even come from the final group on the course.
“Every year has a certain trend,” said Rory McIlroy, one of the few to hang on in 2012 at PGA National in March. “And this year, it just seems the trend is that it’s hard to hold on to the lead. It’s just been a strange season like that, and I don’t know if there’s any way to explain it. It’s tough to win out here, and every time you do win, you can’t take it for granted.”
No lead these days can be taken for granted. Winners on tour have come back from at least four-shot deficits to win 11 times in 2012. That was never more stark than at last month’s British Open, where Adam Scott was four ahead with four holes to play before bogeying his way into a runner-up finish behind Ernie Els.
Scott hasn’t bothered to look at the video of his collapse at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“Not because it was too painful but because I pretty much know what happened out there,” he said. “I can re-live it quite clearly.”
Scott’s meltdown has been more the norm than the exception in recent years. Dustin Johnson collapsed out of the gate in the final round at the 2010 U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy imploded on the back nine at the 2011 Masters. Jason Dufner lost a five-shot lead with four to go at last year’s PGA in Atlanta.
Heck, even Tiger Woods – the Mariano Rivera of major closers – lost his only career 54-lead in 15 major attempts to Q-school qualifier Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA.
The gut-wrenching press conference with the stunned loser has become de rigueur. Jim Furyk has had the distinction of being the self-inflicted victim twice in the last two months, kicking away prime chances on the closing holes at the U.S. Open and the WGC event on Sunday at Firestone, where he led for 71 holes until a double bogey at the end.
“It is a cruel game,” said Furyk. “I’ve lost some tournaments in some pretty poor fashions, but I don’t think I’ve let one ever slip nearly as bad as this one. This was my worst effort to finish off an event.”
SEEING A MAJOR CHAMPION and veteran winner like Furyk struggle to close the deal illustrates just how much pressure can affect even the most accomplished of players.
A few people like Woods relish being in control of their own fate with the lead.
“I just loved being there,” Woods said. “To me it was a chance to be able to make history, to go out the next day and win a tournament. You’re part of history. So that to me is exciting. So pressure, absolutely, and that’s the fun of it. It’s fun feeling those nerves, it’s fun feeling that adrenaline.”
Fun, however, is the last word many other players would use to describe it. Graeme McDowell, who lost a share of the 54-hole lead at Olympic in June and witnessed first-hand Scott’s free-fall at Lytham, says his familiar smile on the outside belies the reality of his insides.
“Probably some of my most painful stretches of golf holes as far as enjoyment levels would be the last 12 holes at Pebble (or) the last eight holes at the Ryder Cup,” McDowell said of his two biggest career front-running triumphs. “Painful is probably the wrong word – they are very difficult to enjoy.
“We practice, we dream all our lives and we hit golf balls for hours and hours and hours all our lives to put ourselves in those scenarios, but they are uncomfortable. They are not enjoyable. You are very scared, mainly of kind of messing it up.”
TRYING TO EXPLAIN the difficulty of holding a lead is the kind of thing that keeps sports psychologists in business.
“For three days, you’re just playing golf and you’re not really thinking about the result,” McIlroy said. “You’re just trying to get yourself into that position and when you get yourself into that position, that’s when the pressure comes and when you have to finish it off.”
Explanations for why bigger leads seem even harder to hold is counter-intuitive.
“Those big leads are more nerve-wracking than, say, just a one shot lead,” said Els, who benefited at Lytham but has been on the giving end more often. “With a one-shot lead, on paper, it’s a lead but it’s not really a lead, because after one hole, you know, one guy can birdie and you lose your lead.
“But when it’s a five- or six-shot lead, it’s really nerve wracking because then you feel the pressure that if you lose now, you’ve given it up. That’s a different taste that’s left in your mouth.”
McIlroy became the poster player for bouncing back after a high-profile collapse, winning the 2011 U.S. Open in his next major start after disintegrating in front of the world on the back at Augusta two months earlier.
“Coming down the stretch, it is your tournament to win if you have a lead, but it’s also your tournament to lose,” McIlroy said. “So obviously you want to approach it the first way and go and say, ‘This is my tournament; I’m in front; I’m going to stamp my authority here and I’m going to go ahead and win.’ But it’s hard. You know, it’s hard to win. It’s hard to hold onto leads.”
MCILROY COULD EMPATHIZE with Scott at the Open and Furyk at the WGC, having a lead spiral away from you almost uncontrollably in the stretch.
“It’s sort of probably a little bit of a shock to the system,” he said. “A little bit like me at the Masters. I felt completely in control over the first three days, stepped up on the first tee box on the Sunday and didn’t feel in control. So it was a bit of a shock. I was like, wow, this feels a bit different.”
Scott comes back this week believing he can pull a McIlroy. For 68 holes he played the best major golf of his career only two events ago. Now he will try to get there all over again on the Ocean Course and see if he can create a different end result.
“I’m lucky that just three weeks later I’m going to have another go at it,” Scott said. “And if I can channel some of that energy that I had going at the Open week and the feelings in my golf swing, then this is a great chance for me to kind of get the victory after a tough loss like those rugby teams might or whatever.”
For Scott, reversing the tour trend is personal. And if he finds himself in the dreaded position of being the leader come Sunday, he’ll try to embrace it rather than fear another failure.
“It’s certainly not something you’d like to make a habit of, and I never have,” Scott said. “I’ve generally been a good closer of golf tournaments in my career. If I was in that position, I’d like to turn it around this time and close the golf tournament out.”