Commentary

Nightmares ahead for golf's elite?

Updated: August 8, 2012, 11:26 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- The legs play an important part in the golf swing, but not typically as part of a kicking motion. Not so, apparently, in the 2012 version of the professional game.

Players have spent a good part of this year kicking away golf tournaments -- and then kicking themselves afterward for the way they squandered such opportunities.

That trend has been quite apparent in the three most recent big events in the game, and has been prevalent through the 2012 PGA Tour season.

As the PGA Championship is set to begin on Thursday, the topic remains fresh, as Jim Furyk was the latest to cough up a lead on Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

And with a treacherous closing set of holes here -- including the 223-yard par-3 17th -- at the Ocean Course, the possibility again exists that closing out a tournament, especially the year's final major championship, will be far from simple.

"Every year has a certain trend," said Rory McIlroy, the No. 3-ranked player in the world who has two third-place finishes in three PGA Championship appearances. "It just seems this year the trend is it's hard to hold onto the lead. I don't think there's any theory behind it or you can think too much into it. It's just something that happens.

"For three days, you're just playing, you're playing golf and you're not really thinking about the result. 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."

So far this year, just 11 of 34 third-round leaders have gone on to win the tournament on the PGA Tour.

But three of the most painful collapses occurred at three of the biggest events: the U.S. Open, Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. At each of the three, the winner never led while playing the course. At both the Open Championship and Bridgestone, the winner never led until the tournament was over.

"If you're in the last group or the last two groups, all the focus is on you, so I think it's a little harder to get the job done," said Webb Simpson, who shot a final-round 68 at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club and then watched from the clubhouse as the likes of Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell and Furyk were unable to match him.

"I think it was a perfect spot for me to be in because in a major I've never been in the last group, and I have been at a regular event, and each time is a learning experience," he said. "It's a tough position to win in, being the leader, being chased. But if you ask me would I want a 1-shot lead or be one back, I'd still take a 1-shot lead."

Tiger Woods has won all 14 of his major championships having held at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Only once has he failed to convert such a lead at a major, that coming at the 2009 PGA Championship. He's also 49-for-53 on the PGA Tour in such situations.

"I don't know why it's happened particularly this year," said Woods about the struggles of leaders. "It's not just in majors, but it's happened at regular tour stops for some reason. Guys have lost leads this year more so than in the past.

"For me in the major championships, I loved it. I just loved being there. To me it was a chance to be able to make history, to go out and the next day and win a tournament. You're part of history. That to me is exciting.

"Pressure, absolutely, and that's the fun of it. It's fun feeling those nerves. It's fun feeling that adrenaline. That to me is a joy and one of the reasons why I bust my tail in practice to put myself there, because I just love it."

Furyk, who began the final round of the U.S. Open tied with McDowell, was tied for the lead when he bogeyed two of the last three holes. McDowell had a chance to tie Simpson with a birdie at the 18th but was unable to putt from closer than 25 feet.

At the Open Championship, Adam Scott stood on the 15th tee of the final round with a 4-shot lead. He bogeyed four straight holes as Els birdied the last, the Aussie losing by a shot to the Big Easy.

And on Sunday in Akron, Furyk led the entire tournament, shooting an opening-round 63 and still holding a 1-shot advantage on the 18th tee. But he made a double-bogey on the final hole to lose by one to Keegan Bradley -- who never led until Furyk missed his bogey putt.

"Coming down the stretch, it is your tournament to win if you have a lead, but it's also your tournament to lose," said McIlroy, who learned the hard way at last year's Masters, where he had a 4-shot advantage going into Sunday and shot 80 in the final round. "It's hard. It's hard to win. It's hard to hold onto leads. Last week, Jim got off to that great start, had a bit of a lead, Keegan starts to come back, he charges, makes a lot of putts coming in.

"All of a sudden, the pressure that Jim probably didn't feel most of the way through that round, he started to feel on the last couple holes. It's sort of a shock to the system, a little 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."

Kiawah will not make playing with a lead any easier. The back nine is especially difficult, with both the par-3 14th and 17th holes measuring more than 200 yards. The 17th has been stretched to 223 and is guarded by two bunkers on the left with water in front and to the right. The hole has derisively been called "Lake Calc" in honor of Mark Calcavecchia, who hit three balls in the water during the 1991 Ryder Cup.

One came as the result of a shank during his final-day singles match with Colin Montgomerie -- who had hit his tee shot in the water first.

Talk about blown leads. Calcavecchia was 4-up with four holes to play and needed only to halve one of the remaining holes to win the match. At the 17th, after Monty found the hazard, Calc needed only to find dry land -- and couldn't do it. He ended up losing both closing holes, nearly costing the Americans the Ryder Cup. The U.S. won 14½ to 13½ as the event went to the final hole, the final putt.

"I just freaked out for no reason," Calcavecchia said later.

And that, apparently, is what having a lead can do, as we've seen so many times this year.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com