News From Terre Haute, Indiana

On & Off the Course

April 17, 2011

ON AND OFF THE COURSE: Playing with lead a difficult task

TERRE HAUTE — As exciting as last week’s Masters was, with six players being tied for the lead at one point on Sunday, it was very difficult watching Rory McIlroy fall apart to shoot an 80. This isn’t the first time that a player with the lead has blown it — big time — at either the Masters or other tournaments. 2010 alone had a multitude of times that it happened.

 Unfortunately for McIlroy, this is the second time for him that he has had a disastrous round following an excellent round within the past year. The other time, was in the British Open in July 2010, at St. Andrews. He had opened the tournament with a brilliant round of 63, which tied the major championship record for low round.

The last time a 63 was shot at the British Open was 17 years previously, by Payne Stewart at Royal St. George. Only 22 players have shot that low in a major tournament.

When Rory started his round, there was rain in the forecast, but he was playing in ideal conditions, with hardly any wind off of St. Andrews Bay, and very little rain. It was a warm day by Scottish standards, too.

The following day, however, in harsh, windswept conditions, he set another record, but one that he wouldn’t want. Shooting an 8-over-par 80, he set the record for the highest round to go along with an opening 63.

The previous record was held by Tom Weiskopf, who opened with a 63 at the 1980 U.S. Open, and followed it with a 75.

Other final-round leads in majors that we have had to witness recently were Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open debacle at Pebble Beach in 2010, where he shot an 82 to blow a three-shot lead, and Nick Watney’s 81 at the PGA Championship, to blow a three-shot lead.

McIlroy’s 80 on Sunday matched the highest score by the 54-hole leader at the Masters, shot by Ken Venturi in 1956. So we’ve seen it before, just not in high def, or even on color TV for that matter.

Ah, the Masters. Unlike the British Open courses, where drastic changes in conditions can have a huge effect on players’ scores, The Masters is always played at Augusta National, and usually any changes in the weather are not extremely drastic, at least not enough to make a 15-shot difference.

What the Masters has, though, is mind-boggling, literally. Bobby Jones said that “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears.”

McIlroy’s round last Sunday was an example of how true that is.

He still had the lead on the course by one shot after the front nine, but once he hooked his drive into the woods on No. 10, the wheels started to fall off. After chopping out missing the green and hitting a tree, he finally chipped on, then two-putted and walked away with a triple bogey. His confidence was shattered. Once that happened, his timing was all off.

According to the announcers, McIlroy’s is a free-flowing swing, all based on timing. If he was nervous and tight, he couldn’t do his normal swing, so he could not just get back in the groove and save his game. And if you have trouble finding the greens at Augusta, it’s even worse once you get to the greens, which are slick and hard to read. If you’re not confident with your line, your speed and your putter, you’re just not going to make putts there.

His three-putt on No. 12 was where I knew he had lost it, and wasn’t going to make a comeback. If he was missing short putts, he didn’t have a chance. He had a seven-shot collapse in only four holes.

It was almost as hard to watch as Greg Norman’s collapse at the Masters in 1996, when he had a six-shot lead going into the final round, only to shoot a 78, while Nick Faldo remained steady and ended up winning.

Even Faldo had a hard time watching Norman that day. I’m sure he would have much rather won with a battle in which he prevailed, rather than watching his friend and fellow competitor struggle so severely.

Speaking of the green jacket, I would be remiss to not even mention the winner of the Masters, Charl Schwartzel, who finished with birdies on the last four holes to win by two strokes. He had enough foresight to seek Jack Nicklaus’ advice on playing Augusta National and enough poise to remain calm during a frenetic, emotional final round. He deserved to win the tournament, and it’s very possible that with intelligence and poise like that, along with a very steady swing, he will win many more.

Quote of the Day: “It will be pretty tough the next few days, but I’ll be fine. I’ll get over it. I’ll be stronger for it.” — Rory McIlroy, after shooting 80 to blow a four-shot lead at the Masters.

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