Simpson now enters the pantheon of improbable comeback winners, while Furyk tries to figure out why front-running in a U.S. Open at Olympic is so uniquely hard. Five times now 54-hole leaders at Olympic have been crushed by disappointment, and among them are the names of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Payne Stewart. If you want to win an Open there, then whatever you do, for god’s sake, don’t take the lead.
But why? The pattern at Olympic is mysterious but distinct: The course humbles great players while exalting the obscure. Olympic’s four Open winners have won three other major championships among them; the runners-up have won 27. It would seem to have something to do with momentum shift and the psychology of playing from behind. Exactly what happens when the advantage swings from the front-runner to the attacker — and why is it so powerful?
In general, the problem with taking the lead at any major is that it puts you in a defensive position. All you need to know about the difficulty of holding up in the final round of a championship is that Jack Nicklaus won eight of his majors from behind. Nicklaus was equally good from in front — but he understood how many front-runners weren’t. He would get himself within three or four shots of the lead, and like his chances to mow down the small group of players in front with sheer tough-mindedness.
“The natural tendency when trailing going into the final round of a tournament is to focus mostly or entirely on stroke deficit,” he wrote in “My Story.” “. . . I’d learned a long time ago that an equally important factor is the number of players needing to be overtaken.”
What’s true of any major is doubly true of the U.S. Open. The late Seve Ballesteros once said, “The U.S. Open has never been exciting to watch. It has always been a sad tournament. There is no excitement, no enjoyment. It is all defensive golf, from the first tee to the last putt.”
Simpson was in a fundamentally more relaxed position, playing three groups ahead of Graeme McDowell and Furyk. No one was very conscious of him, and after he made a couple of early bogeys, there was no reason to shift attention from the last group. “I had a peace all day,” he said.
Peace is not how the front-runners would describe their state of mind. There was the growing sense of dread as players moved in the wrong direction on the leader board. As the day wore on, it became apparent that Simpson’s position was a profound psychological advantage. At first, his 68 for an unglamorous total of 1 over par seemed like a nice but unspectacular number. But when no one could break par, the number went to work on people’s heads.