2011 U.S. Open: When leading a major is bad


Phil Mickelson smiles as he makes his way to the 16th tee during a practice round at Congressional Country Club. (Ricky Carioti/The WASHINGTON POST)

Someone, over the course of the first three days of the U.S. Open, will likely play brilliant golf, and Congressional Country Club will appear tamed. Dustin Johnson was the character a year ago in this tournament. For three days, his flowing swing looked gorgeous against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean at Pebble Beach. He led by three on Saturday night. He shot 82 on Sunday.

Nick Watney was the character at last year’s PGA Championship, another young American after his first major championship. He led by three on Saturday night. He shot 81 on Sunday. Next up, Rory McIlroy at this year’s Masters. Four-shot lead Saturday night, a final-round 80 on Sunday.

“Let me tell you something: I remember every minute of leading like that,” said Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open winner. “It’s the hardest thing in the world for a golfer. Idle time is the hardest thing for any professional athlete.”

How, then, to spend Saturday night? Sleeping or stewing? Envisioning holding the trophy, or avoiding that thought altogether?

“There’s an art to it in many ways,” said Ernie Els, who won the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. “This is in real time. There’s no play-backs. There’s no do-overs. There’s no second serves.”

Johnson, McIlroy and Watney own the most dramatic recent examples of how difficult it is to handle the nerves and the down time, but they are scarcely alone. In the last 11 major championships, precisely one 54-hole leader has held on to win. There is little common thread in experience, resume, attitude or thought process. The names range from the relatively unaccomplished (Ricky Barnes) to established veterans (Lee Westwood, Ben Curtis, Kenny Perry) to legitimate legends (Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Greg Norman).

What, then, is necessary?

“I was never scared of any shot,” said the one man who held on. That would be Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who entered the final round of last year’s British Open up by four strokes and won by seven.

“It didn’t feel like [on] the Sunday, anyone really pushed,” Oosthuizen said.

That, of course, helps. But the play of others is just one issue. External forces, players say, are everywhere.

“The biggest challenge is the anticipation of the start of the round, the time between finishing Saturday night and Sunday and how you handle that time, what goes through your mind,” four-time major champ Phil Mickelson said. “Does holding up the trophy go through your mind? Because if it does, you’re going to have a problem the next day.”

But McIlroy, for instance, shared the Masters lead after the first round, and led alone each of the next two days. How was he supposed to handle himself?

“I didn’t want my wife to even look at me,” said Strange, who will work as an analyst on ESPN this week. “She learned early on to leave me alone. I don’t want anybody to open his mouth to me. . . . There’s no science to it. You just got to get in your own little world.”

No one in the game’s history is a better closer than Woods, who owns 14 major championships, each won when he held at least a share of the lead through the first three rounds. But at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, even he succumbed, turning a two-shot lead on Saturday night into a three-shot loss to Y.E. Yang 24 hours later. Everyone, it turns out, is vulnerable.

“A lot of good players, they’ve all gone through the same thing,” Johnson said. “They’ve all done it.”

The one thing Johnson, Watney and McIlroy shared: None had been in that spot before. Each arrives here preaching that they are better prepared because of that one wayward round. McIlroy went as far as to call it a “great experience.”

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s the first time in that situation. You’re going to be feeling the pressure a little bit, and I certainly did.”

As Johnson said, “I definitely learned a lot from that round.”

That, say those who have won majors, is important. Earlier this month, none other than Jack Nicklaus — who won his 18 majors both from ahead and behind — addressed the situation thusly, “If you don’t learn from it, then you’re not paying attention.” But not everyone buys that it’s that simple. Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champ, remembers gagging away a 54-hole lead to Nicklaus at a tournament in 1971. He said he never got over it.

“I think the only thing you learn is, if you gash your arm with a knife, you know, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that again,’ ” said Miller, who will serve as lead analyst for NBC Sports at Congressional. “You know it hurts and you bleed. That’s it. I’m not sure what you learn. A bad experience never helped me. . . . The only thing you learn is that it haunts you the rest of your life.”

Neither McIlroy nor Watney nor Johnson — ages 22, 30 and 26, respectively — is approaching his experience in such a fashion. Johnson points out that he put himself in a similar position at last year’s PGA Championship — in the final group on Sunday, trailing only Watney — and might have won if not for taking a penalty on the final hole. Watney, whose mind and heart were racing from the moment he woke up Sunday, is learning to slow things down. McIlroy said he analyzed his own collapse — in which he said he played tentatively — and will draw from it.

“I think that’s all I really have to do, just keep getting myself in those positions, and sooner or later it will fall my way,” McIlroy said. “And when it does, I’ll have the memories and the experience of that to fall back on.”

Barry Svrluga covers the Washington Redskins and golf.
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