The thing about a momentum shift is that it takes two people to create it: Someone has to do something right, and someone else has to respond poorly to it. Simpson got to the clubhouse early, put a number up, and let others think about it. You could almost see the crease form in Furyk’s forehead, and he was in one of the worst places in golf to right a listing ship.
One feature of Olympic that may cause such crazy finishes is the unusual nature of its closing holes: back-to-back par 5s and a short par 4. To an attacker such as Simpson, they look like opportunity; to the front-runner trying to stay zeroed in, they may offer a little too much to think about. At a time when a golfer needs to be single-minded, options are the last thing he needs.
Webb Simpson has won the U.S. Open for his first major title. Simpson saved par on the hilly 18th hole with a chip from the rough. He closed with a 68 to hold off Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson at the Olympic Club in San Francisco on Sunday.
Over the final three holes, Furyk no longer could concentrate on one swing at time. Instead, every move he made was in the new context of where he was relative to Simpson. And when a leader starts thinking about external factors, he’s usually in trouble. Sports psychologists are deeply divided on whether momentum shifts are real or illusory, and they devote whole papers to the subject. But does it matter? What counts is that, as researchers Lee Crust and Mark Nesti put it, “perceptions of psychological momentum are likely to mediate performance via cognitive and affective processes (i.e. optimism, sense of control, motivation, self-efficacy, concentration, energy and synchronization.”
You want a simple term for all that? Duck hook. Furyk, normally the steadiest of players, totally lost his control and concentration at the par-5 16th hole. He was surprised to find the tee set forward by more than 100 yards from where it had been the rest of the week, presumably to foster exactly the kind of momentum shift that occurred Sunday.
“I let it get in the back of my mind and didn’t make a good golf swing because of it,” he said afterward.
With one bad swing, Furyk joined the list of famous Olympic losers who have been on the wrong end of momentum shifts: Hogan, who was in the clubhouse when Jack Fleck made up a two-shot deficit with three to play; Palmer, who lost a seven-shot lead on the back nine to Billy Casper; Watson, who led by a stroke with five to play only to lose to Scott Simpson; and Stewart, whose four-shot lead in the final round turned into a one-stroke loss to Lee Janzen.
Furyk’s only consolation? The famous losers at Olympic have more trophies than the winners. Just not this one.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.