Major Meltdowns

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Call them collapses, meltdowns, implosions, chokes, or whatever you will. It makes no difference. They are horrible, embarrassing and as unpleasant to witness as road accidents. Although, they can occur at any tournament, they are disproportionately well represented in the major championships. The explanation is simple. The bigger the event the more desperate a player is to win, the more intense the pressure, and the greater the likelihood of it all suddenly going horribly wrong. And when things begin to unravel, they do so in such a grimly inevitable way that no individual seems capable of resisting the fiendish forces that eventually result in the final, ignominious disaster.

rory-mcilroyWe have witnessed several implosions from the top of the leaderboard at recent Majors. Still vivid in the memory are Rory McIlroy’s dramatic collapse at the 2011 Masters and Adam Scott’s equally galling capitulation during the 2012 [British] Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes. For both McIlroy and Scott, redemption came sooner than expected – in McIlroy’s case with a demolition of the entire field in the U.S. Open at Congressional just two months later and for Scott there was the joy of becoming the first Australian to win the Masters in April 2013.

Gorgeous Augusta has seen it all before. In 1979 Ed Sneed had a five-shot lead going into the final round, was comfortably in front all the way round and three clear as he played 16. However, on 16 and 17 he left putts hanging on the lip and bogeyed them both before missing a par putt on the last that would have won him the Masters. Instead he had to settle for a place in the play-off with Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller, which the latter won. Unlike McIlroy who achieved swift redemption, Ed Sneed never did win a coveted major.

Although Greg Norman already had two majors to his name by 1996 and wasn’t therefore trying to break his duck, he nevertheless had never won the Masters. The Shark, however, had come incredibly close on several occasions, never more so than when Larry Mize holed a ‘miracle’ chip on the second play-off hole to steal the green jacket off his back in 1987. But 1996 looked certain to be Norman’s year. After an opening course-record 63, he continued to look rock-solid through days two and three and took a six-shot advantage over Nick Faldo into the final round.

Norman struggled from the outset on the Sunday and his six-shot cushion over Faldo eventually reversed into a five-shot deficit

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Greg Norman sinks to his knees after narrowly missing the hole with his chip shot on the 15th during the final round of the 1996 Masters at Augusta

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is one of sport’s recurring narratives, but nowhere are the pain and embarrassment of such collapses felt more acutely than out on the golf course—where you have only yourself to blame and nowhere to hide.Ten years earlier, the flamboyant Aussie had seen a similarly healthy final-round lead turn to dust in the PGA Championship at Inverness, Ohio when playing partner Bob Tway holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole for victory. Could history repeat itself, or was the Great White Shark too savvy this time round? Well, yes and no. Norman struggled from the outset on the Sunday and his cushion over Faldo was soon deflated. Trailing by the 12th, his chances of realizing his Masters dream finally sank without trace when, with possibly the worst shot of his entire career, he hooked it off the tee into the water at 16. His final round of 78, which included five bogeys and two doubles, contrasted with Faldo’s immaculate 67. In starkly mathematical terms, his six-shot lead had reversed into a five-shot deficit.

Until Norman’s nightmare, the dubious honor of having the worst final-round collapse in the Masters belonged to Ken Venturi. In 1956, just like Norman, he led from the opening round and had what seemed an unassailable four-shot lead going into Sunday’s final round. However in very windy conditions he racked up an ugly 80 and finished just one shot behind Jack Burke, Jr. It was especially disappointing because Venturi would have been the first (and almost certainly the last) amateur to have won the Masters.

Faldo, the beneficiary when Norman disintegrated, picked up the first of his green jackets in 1989 when Scott Hoch inexplicably handed it to him. Although it wasn’t a full-blown, 18-hole catastrophe, Hoch’s mini-meltdown had all the essential wobbly elements—tension, anxiety and fear—one looks for in the larger version. Like so many other top players who had never won a Major, Hoch was desperate to break his duck and led Faldo by a single shot playing the 17th. But he missed a relatively short par putt and so it went to a sudden-death playoff starting at the 10th. Faldo struggled to a bogey five while Hoch had two putts for the Masters. His birdie attempt rolled about two-and-a-half feet past. Unwisely, he then spent a couple of minutes studying the short putt, backed off once and then knocked the ball five feet past the hole. To his credit, he holed the one back but his chance was gone and Faldo, doubtless buoyed by the reprieve, sank a long one at the next to win.

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To this day Doug Sanders admits to being haunted by the 3ft putt he had to win the 1970 Open Championship

Think of short missed putts and your mind inevitably wanders back to 1970, Doug Sanders and the final hole at St Andrews. Like Hoch, Sanders was a successful PGA Tour player who had never won a Major when he stood on the famous 18th green with two putts for the [British] Open. His lag stopped rolling less than three feet above the hole to leave him a tricky little slider that broke left to right. As he was about to putt, Sanders spotted what he thought was sand on his line and bent down to pick it up before realizing it was just a blade of brown grass. Instead of stepping away and beginning again, he putted and the ball slid over the right lip, which left him in a tie with Jack Nicklaus. Although he played creditably the next day in the 18-hole playoff, he lost.

Needing a double-bogey six to win, Van de Velde contrived to take seven, via the grandstand, thick rough, sand and water

Possibly the most famous final-hole meltdown in the Open was at Carnoustie in 1999 when Jean Van de Velde threw away a three-shot lead. Standing on the tee of the 444 yard 18th, the Frenchman merely needed to card a double-bogey six to become the first Frenchman to win The Open since 1907. Rather than play safe with an iron though, he chose driver for his first and proceeded to find all manner of trouble including rough, sand, water and even a grandstand before holing a decent putt for a triple-bogey seven. Not surprisingly, after enduring such trauma, he lost the three-man playoff and Paul Lawrie took home the Claret Jug.

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Van de Velde’s nightmare mirrors a similar unhappy episode that occurred at the U.S. Open fully six decades previously. Although he won an amazing 82 tournaments on the PGA Tour, including no fewer than seven Majors, ‘Slammin’ Sam Snead never captured his national championship. He was runner-up four times and possibly had his best chance of clinching the title at the Philadelphia Country Club in 1939. On the final par-5 18th, Snead mistakenly believed he needed a birdie to win whereas a par would have been sufficient. Anyway, he played the hole too aggressively, found two bunkers and ran up an ugly eight, thereby missing the playoff by two shots.

Snead’s chance for redemption came in 1947 when the U.S. Open was staged at St. Louis Country Club. On this occasion he holed a fine putt on the final green to make it into the playoff where he came up against Lew Worsham. In the playoff, Snead had a two-shot lead with three holes to play but the two players were tied as they came to the 18th. Both reached the green in two and had similar short putts of about two-and-a-half feet for birdies. Snead addressed the ball and was about to pull the trigger when Worsham interrupted him saying he wasn’t sure that Snead was away. A measurement was taken and, indeed, it was for Snead to putt first. Whether or not Worsham was guilty of gamesmanship is uncertain but Snead missed the putt while Worsham holed his to claim the greatest victory of his life. The unhappy combination of blowing a two-shot lead and missing a tiddler at the last justifies including this sad episode in the pantheon of major disasters.

Sam Snead was undoubtedly one of golf’s greats and even Arnold Palmer, a man whose name is synonymous with ‘charges’ up the leaderboard, has suffered a final-day Major reversal. The three-shot lead with which Arnie began the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club had swollen to seven when he and Billy Casper teed off at the 10th. By the time the pair reached the 15th, there was still a healthy five shots between them. Yet, what appeared a comfortable cushion had disappeared by the 18th, though Palmer did hold on up the last to force an 18-hole playoff.

Again he saw a decent lead evaporate in the San Francisco haze. Two shots clear with six holes to play, Palmer gave up six strokes over the remaining holes and his closing score of 73 was comfortably eclipsed by Casper’s tidy 69.

Although Palmer’s final-round 71 in regulation play hardly constitutes a collapse, because it was none other than the ‘King’ who let slip a seven-shot lead, it shows that no Major is ever won until the last putt is sunk.

Doug SandersEd SneedGreg NormanJean Van de VeldeRory McIlroy
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