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No lead is safe in the majors this year

- Associated Press - Saturday, August 4, 2012

No cheer that sounded like the clap of thunder. No need to raise both arms or pump the fist in celebration.

Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open while sitting in the clubhouse at The Olympic Club, a nervous wife at his side as they watched the last few holes on television. Ernie Els was pacing on the practice green behind the clubhouse at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, spending more time on his phone than rapping a few putts in case of a playoff, when he realized he had won the British Open.

These are not unusual spots to win, but they seem to be popular places in this most peculiar year.

Three majors, three-come-from behind winners.

The PGA Championship, which starts Aug. 9 at Kiawah Island along the coastal waters of South Carolina, is known as "Glory's Last Shot" because it's the final major of the year. The way this season has gone, that slogan could apply to any number of players going into the last round _ just not the 54-hole leader.

"It's showing how deep the fields are and that winning from the front is tough," Luke Donald said. "I think that's why we all respect what Tiger has done in the game, because he was so good at getting a lead and keeping it. That's a tough thing to do. And obviously, that's been shown this year that no lead is really safe."

Bubba Watson had the closest thing to a normal celebration. He was three shots behind Peter Hanson going into the final round at Augusta National, made four straight birdies on the back nine to close with 68, and then beat Louis Oosthuizen on the first hole of a playoff with a wild hook out of the tree. He was the only major champion this year to be declared the winner while still on the golf course.

Simpson was four shots behind Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell going into the last round at Olympic Club and never really looked like the winner until a tough chip to save par on the 18th hole. He had to wait as Furyk chopped up the 16th for bogey and McDowell ran out of holes to atone for earlier mistakes.

Els winning at the British Open should be an example for everyone trying to chase the leader, no matter how far behind or how late in the round.

Not only was he six shots behind Adam Scott going into Sunday at Royal Lytham, Scott had a four-shot lead with four holes to play until Els closed out a 32 on the back with a 15-foot birdie on the 18th, and Scott bogeyed his last four holes.

You have to go all the way back to 1989 to find the last time no 54-hole leader won a major. Nick Faldo rallied from five behind at the Masters, Curtis Strange (U.S. Open) and Mark Calcavecchia (British Open) were three shots back, and Payne Stewart won his first major by overcoming a six-shot deficit to Mike Reid at the PGA Championship.

What's going on?

"I think everybody got spoiled with Tiger winning," Brandt Snedeker said. "I bet if you look back 20 years ago, very few guys closed all the time. Tiger was the best closer ever. But you know, it's hard to win. Guys are getting nervous. Guys behind don't get nervous, they just fire at pins because you're not thinking about it."

Tiger Woods won all 14 of his majors with at least a share of the 54-hole lead. He didn't lose a lead in a major until 2009 in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, when Y.E. Yang chased him down in the final round to turn a two-shot deficit into a three-shot win.

"He made it look so easy for so long," Steve Stricker said.

In the 17 majors since Woods won his last one at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open, only four players with a share of the 54-hole lead have gone on to win a major _ Angel Cabrera at the 2009 Masters (tied for the lead), Louis Oosthuizen at the 2010 British Open (four-shot lead), Rory McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open (eight-shot lead) and Darren Clarke at the 2011 British Open (one-shot lead).

During the dominant era of Woods, dating to his 1999 PGA Championship win, 27 of 35 major champions started the final round atop the leaderboard.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, a cycle, like Europe once going seven years without a major.

"I don't read anything into that," said Strange, who made up a three-shot deficit against Tom Kite at Oak Hill in 1989 to win his second straight U.S. Open. "Golf is a game where you have no defense for their offense, except for playing better. Someone from behind can go out early and beat them all."

Strange is among those who think Els never hit a shot on the back nine at Lytham when it occurred to him that he might win. Scott had been too solid, too steady, for too long. Els played freely, made putts, posted his 68 and won when Scott couldn't buy a par.

Strange also doesn't think Woods did anything wrong by sticking to his conservative game plan off the tee at Lytham despite trailing by five shots on the final day.

"I never changed a game plan," Strange said. "My game dictated how I played a golf course. If I was five behind, I didn't go out there and fire a 2-iron to the corner of greens. You play really well and the other guy has to falter. Can you shoot 61 or 62? At the U.S. Open or the British Open, no. At Hartford, yes. Didn't that happen at Hartford?"

Yes.

Marc Leishman, six shots behind, closed with a 62 and finished more than two hours before the leaders. He discovered he won on the practice range.

It's not just the majors. Across the PGA Tour, this has been the year of the comeback.

In the week leading up to the PGA Championship, only 10 players in 33 tournaments have converted a 54-hole lead (or share of the lead) into a victory. Snedeker came from seven shots behind at Torrey Pines and won a playoff over Kyle Stanley, who made triple bogey on his last hole. A week later, Stanley rallied from an eight-shot deficit in Phoenix with a 65, winning when Spencer Levin shot a 75. And that was just the beginning. The PGA Tour had nine consecutive tournaments, from the middle of May to the middle of July, when the winner won from behind.

"It's parity in the game, guys being so tight up there on the leaderboard," Hunter Mahan said. "It's not one or two guys. It's 10 guys within one or two shots of the lead. To do it four straight days against this competition is difficult. And it's so easy to stop playing golf and start protecting a lead."

Throw in those elements with what figures to be a mystery of a golf course at Kiawah Island, and there's no telling what the PGA Championship might deliver.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island hasn't been on the golfing radar since the 1991 Ryder Cup, where there were plenty of leads blown in the matches. It has been softened around the edges over time, the scores will be dictated by the wind, as always.

Only a few players in the field have competed at Kiawah, such as Jose Maria Olazabal in the Ryder Cup, and Furyk and Padraig Harrington in the two World Cup events. Woods, McDowell, Scott and others have gone to The Ocean Course to get a feel for a course. With recent rain, it was playing every bit of its 7,776 yards, the longest ever for a major championship if it is played to its full length.

"I walked off the front nine saying, `This course is not all that.' I walked off the back nine and said, `Yeah, it's good. It's good,'" McDowell said. "It's a course of two nines. The front nine has no real definition to it. The back nine has a bit of elevation, a bit of water. It's good."

Definition is what the PGA Championship has lacked over the years. The Masters is defined by the dynamic course of Augusta National. The U.S. Open bills itself as the toughest test in golf, while the British Open is the only major played on links courses. And the PGA Championship?

"We believe we have the identity as the strongest field in golf," said Joe Steranka, the chief executive of the PGA of America. Indeed, the top 108 players in the world ranking are scheduled to be at Kiawah Island. No other tournament gets that many from the top 100.

Then again, the world's best seem to compete against each other more than they once did, whether it's the World Golf Championships or even strong PGA Tour events at Quail Hollow or the Memorial.

"It's one thing to bring them together for Chevron or Bridgestone," Steranka said, referring to Woods' exhibition in December and the WGC at Firestone. "It's another thing when a major championship is at stake. As we've seen already, players react differently to their own games when they get a chance to be part of golf history."

Especially if they have a lead going into the final round.

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