Apr 18, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Rory McIlroy had the Masters in his grasp. Eighteen holes left, a four-shot lead, three days of brilliant golf behind him.
Then the final round started. An indifferent front nine turned into utter disaster on the back, the public bleeding profuse until it ended 80 shots later, Rory a whopping 10 shots behind the charging Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the last four holes to slip on the green coat.
Yes, it was painful to view, but not as much a surprise as you might think. You try and sleep on a 54-hole lead in a major, knowing that, if successful, your life will instantly change.
Only a few years ago, when Tiger Woods was dominant and scandal-free, he took 14 leads to the final round of a major and won them all. He knew how to close, at least before Y.E. Yang stunned him at the PGA Championship in 2009, and you know the rest.
Now it’s all different. Three times in the last four majors, the guy in front going into the final round shot 80 or worse – first Dustin Johnson at the U.S. Open, then Nick Watney at the PGA, and now the young McIlroy.
Not only that, but once the leader got humbled, those last 18 holes turned into a free-for-all, half a dozen players (at least) possessing a chance to win, the outcome totally obscure until the very end.
And you know what? It’s a lot of fun. Maybe the only problem with Tiger’s full envelopment of the golf scene was that the endgame got too predictable, at least in the routs. It took the unsung heroes (Bob May, Chris DiMarco, Rocco Mediate) to inject life into the inevitability.
In the last year, though, forget that notion. Even when Tiger is involved in the last-day chaos, he hasn’t prevailed, which would make him human and sympathetic was it not for all the scandals.
All this started at Pebble Beach. Johnson, the tall, athletic and crazy-long kid from South Carolina, had burst to the front late Saturday, answering Tiger’s surge with a big finish of his own.
Yet it took just three holes on Sunday for Dustin to blow up, and from there the megstars – Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els – were in position, as was the French qualifier, Gregory Havret. All had their chances. All treated the Open like a hot potato, dropping it at first touch.
Oh yeah, and Graeme McDowell was throwing away shots, too. Only he did it one less than the others, a classic case of Open survival that earned him a few pints of Guinness and the first European title at the Open in four decades.
The PGA was crazier. Once Watney melted away at Whistling Straits, more than half a dozen players flailed away, taking the lead and surrendering it just as fast. From the aging Steve Elkington to the young McIlroy, the cast of possible winners kept revolving.
Of course, the chaos continued after Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson made those clutch pars at the 72nd hole. Johnson was back, one shot up with one hole to play, but a wayward drive led to bogey and then…wait a minute, he grounded a club in a bunker? What bunker?
Kaymer’s ultimate win in the three-hole overtime got overshadowed by the rules controversy. Some trashed Dustin for not knowing the rules. Others forgave him for an understandable error in the midst of unfathomable pressure.
This brings us to Augusta. You should have known that it would be crazy when Schwartzel holed an impossible chip on 1 and a fairway shot for eagle on 3. Yet even that got lost in the 31 Tiger orchestrated on the front nine. Admit it – you thought the guy in red was headed for 63 or 64.
When it didn’t happen, though (those short missed putts on 12 and 15), we had yet another free-for-all in a major Sunday. Eight- Tiger, Geoff Ogilvy, Bo Van Pelt, Luke Donald, Adam Scott, Jason Day, K.J. Choi, Angel Cabrera – got within a shot of the lead, or held the lead outright, and none of them won.
Instead it was the quiet, steady Schwartzel, who stayed calm and anonymous with 10 straight pars before that unprecedented finish. Birdie 15, 16, 17 and 18 to win it? That’s legendary stuff, even if the man who did it was not a household name outside South Africa.
What to learn from all this? Maybe it’s better not to have a lead, of any size, through three rounds of a major. You have to ponder the weight of history as well as your game, which is something the chasers don’t have to think about.
Also, expect more of these wild finishing stretches. With the gap between Tiger and the rest of the deep pool of talented golfers vanished, a whole lot of people now think they can win and go into these situations without the intimidation factor Mr. Woods once had on the rest of golf.
So come the third weekend in June, when the major circus hits Congressional for the latest version of the U.S. Open, pay attention for the first three days – then settle in on Sunday. You’re bound to stay tuned until the last putt drops.