- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

BETHESDA, MD. (AP) - Greg Norman was famous for his shortcomings in the majors, especially his “Saturday Slam” from 25 years ago when he led all four majors going into the final round and only captured one of them.

That’s not nearly as bad as what’s going on in the majors these days.

They might as well be called “Sunday Slammed.”

It started last summer, when Dustin Johnson took a three-shot lead into the final round at Pebble Beach and shot an 82, the highest score by a 54-hole leader in nearly 100 years at the U.S. Open. Two majors later, Nick Watney had a three-shot lead going into Sunday in the PGA Championship and shot an 81.

And most fresh in the major memory: Rory McIlroy.

Equipped with a four-shot lead at the Masters, and still one shot ahead when he made the turn, he hooked a tee shot into the cabins left of the 10th fairway and made triple bogey, and on the next two holes he took seven putts from a combined 20 feet on his way to an 80. He wound up joining a select group, just not the one he was expecting.

The scores are shocking enough.

Perhaps more troublesome is they have happened so frequently. Three times in the last four majors, the leader going into the final round couldn’t even break 80.

“You’re playing for history,” Ernie Els, a three-time major champion, said Tuesday. “When you start thinking that way, especially if you’re going for your first one … that’s when things can go haywire is when you’re really trying to win instead of just letting that picture in your mind play itself out, just letting your game go and just doing what you’ve done for three days.”

Johnson, Watney and McIlroy are only the latest examples, and they are getting plenty of attention because their implosions came one right after another, all within the last year. Plus, any score that starts with an “8” is sure to be remembered.

But they are not alone.

In the last decade of majors, 15 players who had at least a share of the lead going into the final round have shot 75 or worse. Aaron Baddeley shot 80 at Oakmont and Retief Goosen shot 81 at Pinehurst, both times at a U.S. Open. Norman shot 77 at Royal Birkdale when he was trying to become golf’s oldest major champion. Justin Leonard had a three-shot lead at Hazeltine and shot 77.

Three of those players already had won majors, so it can’t be blamed entirely on inexperience.

The last player to break 70 in the final round of a major when he had the lead going into Sunday was Tiger Woods, who shot 69 in the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. That was 13 majors ago.

It shows how hard majors are to win.

Players with at least a share of the 54-hole lead have won only two of the last 11 majors.

But this also is another example of what sets Woods so far above his peers, particularly when it comes to the biggest events. In the 15 majors that Woods was atop the leaderboard going into the final round, his Sunday scoring average was 69.9.

In the last 10 years, the 54-hole leaders have averaged 72.8 on Sunday.

“There’s an art to it in many ways,” Els said. “That’s why you’ve got to take your hat off to guys who have won a lot of majors, because this is in real time. There’s no do-overs, there’s no second serves. You have to play your shot and then you’ve got to hit your next shot, and that’s what you’ve got to think of. You can’t be thinking about, ‘I’m going to make history now.’”

Or else they’ll be history.

Even though it took Phil Mickelson a dozen years before he won his first major, he never threw one away. He simply never had the lead until he broke through at the 2004 Masters. Mickelson won three majors before his lone gaffe. Five years ago in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he was tied with Kenneth Ferrie and poised to win until a double bogey on the final hole.

The key for Mickelson is not the final round, but the 20 hours between finishing on Saturday and starting on Sunday.

“I think 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,” he said. “What goes through your mind? Does holding up the trophy go through your mind? Because if it does, you’re going to have a problem the next day.”

Johnson said he slept well Saturday night at Pebble Beach. He warmed up well on the range. But once he lost the lead with a triple bogey on the second hole, one of golf’s quickest players shifted into warp speed.

“You try to look like you’re having as much fun as possible,” Johnson said. “But it’s just not fun. Most of the guys out here, especially a lot of good players, they’ve all gone through the same thing. They’ve all done it. It’s a learning process that I think everybody is going to go through at least once in their career. You can’t look at it as a bad thing. You’ve got to learn from it and move on.”

Tom Watson had a one-shot lead at Winged Foot in the 1974 U.S. Open and shot 79. He won the British Open a year later. Ben Crenshaw was tied for the lead in the 1977 Masters and shot 76. He went on to win two green jackets.

“I think Tom Watson is a perfect example of that,” Jack Nicklaus said. “He didn’t waste that experience. He learned from that experience, and obviously learned how to finish. I’ve been the recipient of what he learned on a couple of occasions. He did very well. Sometimes you have to experience that before you learn how to do it.

“If you don’t learn from it,” he said, “then you’re not paying attention.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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