“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.