- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

It isn’t every day an athlete does what David Toms did Sunday. Sports history is strewn with the bodies of competitors who came apart down the stretch and lost. But how often has somebody finished the way Toms finished the Wachovia Championship — that is, with a quadruple-bogey eight — and still won?

You’ve heard of “the agony of defeat”? Well, this was the agony of victory. All the more so because Toms, one of the best golfers in the world, had gone 20 months without a win.

To recap, Toms came to the 18th tee at Quail Hollow with a six-stroke lead. He probably could have played the hole with a putter and still walked off with the trophy. But he proceeded to:

1. Hit his drive deep into the trees.

2. Pitch out through the fairway, leaving himself a nasty sidehill lie.

3. Lay up.

4. Finally put his ball on the green.

5. Miss.

6. Miss.

7. Miss.

8. Make.

When it was over, playing partner Kirk Triplett playfully put his thumb on Toms’ wrist — to check his pulse.

Memories of Jan Van de Velde in the ‘99 British Open spring to mind. But there’s a big difference between the two. Van de Velde’s triple-bogey on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie ultimately cost him the tournament — and doomed him to eternal infamy. Toms exited the premises with the winner’s check of more than $1million — and with the almost certain knowledge that within a month, no one will remember the details of his abominable “snowman.”

Except him, of course.

If it makes Toms feel any better, he’s in good company. A quick perusal of various reference books reveals that some of the most illustrious names in sports — team and individual — have wobbled to the finish line at one or another. For instance:

Bob Gibson in the Game 7 of the ‘64 World Series. Gibby, pitching on two days’ rest, nearly blew a 6-0 lead. In the ninth inning, he gave up homers to the Yankees’ Clete Boyer and Phil Linz before closing out a 7-5 win for the Cardinals.

“If Bob Uecker had not been on the Cardinals, then it’s questionable whether we could have beaten the Yankees,” Tim McCarver says in “We Played the Game.” “He kept everything so funny that we never had the chance to think of what a monumental event we were taking part in, against the New York Yankees of all teams. He didn’t play, but he kept us all loose. I still remember him merrily fielding grounders with a trombone he borrowed from a band that played at Busch Stadium prior to the first game. He was actually charged for damage to the instrument, and [owner] Augie Busch wouldn’t pick up the bill.”

The Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the ‘66 NBA Finals. Bill Russell and Co. let the Lakers rally from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series, then almost squandered a double-digit lead in the finale. I can still picture Red Auerbach, in his last season as the Celtics’ coach, lighting a victory cigar with 20 seconds left and his club up by six — only to have L.A. pull to within 95-93 before the clock ran out.

(Also noteworthy: the Rochester Royals’ near-collapse against the Knicks in the ‘51 Finals. On the verge of a sweep, the Royals dropped three straight and were trailing late in Game7 before Arnie Risen and Bob Davies bailed them out.)

The San Francisco 49ers in the ‘81 Super Bowl. The Niners were ahead 20-0 at halftime, but the final score was much closer — 26-21 — and Dwight Clark had to recover an onside kick with 16 seconds to go before Bill Walsh could rest easy.

Steffi Graf in the ‘95 U.S. Open final. After winning the first set against Monica Seles, Graf dropped the next one 6-0. She pulled herself together, though, to capture the fourth of her five Open crowns, 6-3 in the third.

Who knows why these things happen? For Toms, it might simply have been a case of one loose shot following another … and then another … and then another. Comfortable leads can have a tranquilizing effect. And it’s an effect that can zap anyone — from Bob Gibson to Bill Russell to Joe Montana to Steffi Graf. Fortunately for them — and for Toms, too — they lived to tell about it. Others haven’t been so lucky, as we well know.


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