There was so much time to think during the slow follies that were the closing holes of the U.S. Open at Olympic. About what makes fog. About whether Jim Furyk’s swing ever actually hurts. About why more golfers aren’t chain smokers who wind up in sanatoriums. But most of all, about why it’s so much easier to win at Olympic from behind.
The 26-year-old Webb Simpson trailed the leader Furyk by six shots after five holes, and wound up staring at the trophy in his hands like it was a miraculous visitation. If there had been a dialogue balloon over his head, it would have said, “Let’s be realistic. But not until tomorrow.”
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.
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.
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.