Giving up the lead at the end of the game is a terrible feeling in any sport. But it probably hurts even worse for a pro golfer, and especially on the Sunday of a major. When a golfer chokes and watches the championship slip through their fingers, there’s no one else to blame. They can’t pin it on a bad coaching decision, a poor call from the ref, or substandard play from a teammate. Only a long, hard look in the mirror and the lingering feeling of “what if?” remains.
The pressure of holding off challengers on championship Sunday is one of the things that makes winning a golf major so hard. Tiger Woods seemed to excel at it during his glory years, seemingly have ice water in his veins as he dominated the fields en route to 14 major championships. Lesser golfers, even historically great ones, haven’t fared quite so well at golf’s biggest biggest tournaments. Here are eight PGA Tour major tournament collapses that defy logic.
8. Arnold Palmer, 1966 U.S. Open
One of the greatest players the game has ever known also suffered one of the absolute worst Sunday performances at a major tourney, ever. At the venerable Olympic club in San Francisco in 1966, Palmer went into Sunday with a three-stroke lead over 1959 champion Billy Casper. After carding a three-under 32 on the front nine, to Casper’s one-over 36, the lead looked to be an insurmountable seven shots. But, wait, even the great ones get the yips. Palmer bogeyed the 10th but looked to stabilize his game with a birdie at No. 12, but things went all to heck over the final six holes. Casper would shoot a three-under over the final nine, while Palmer carded a four-over to force a playoff. In the 18-hole playoff the next day, Palmer would go three-over to and Casper one-under, capping one of the worst chokes ever.
7. Scott Hoch, 1989 Masters
The hallowed greens of Augusta have seen as much misery over the years as they have elation. Scott Hoch, no stranger to a Sunday collapse, found the former in 1989. Hoch was tied for second on Saturday after shooting a one-under 71, and then a three under-69 on Sunday to get himself to -5 and in contention to win it. But, out of nowhere, Nick Faldo, who was two-over before Sunday’s round, shot a scorching seven-under 65 to force a playoff (which would start on the 10th). On the 10th hole, while Faldo sat helpless, Hoch had a two-foot putt for par to win it. He slid the putt wide (missing the hole completely), sending the playoff to No. 11. Faldo capped Hoch’s collapse by dropping a 25-foot birdie for his first Masters championship.
6. Adam Scott, 2012 British Open
Can a green jacket possibly make up for an epic meltdown at The Open? For Adam Scott, a hard luck golfer if there ever was one, yes. Scott was able to erase the miserable memory of his choke at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s in 2012 by winning the Masters in 2013 — his first major tournament win. However, the year prior, Scott sailed to a four-stroke lead (-11) over Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker (-7) heading into Sunday. While Scott faltered somewhat on the front nine shooting a 2-over 36, his chasers equally undid themselves. Lurking in the weeds, though, was Ernie Els, who trailed by six strokes before the Sunday round. He shot a respectable 2-under 68 and went into the locker room at 7-under. Scott, meanwhile, would bogey No. 15, 16 and 17. He required an eight-foot par putt on No. 18 to force a playoff. He sent it wide, handing Els an improbable Open victory.
5. Rory McIlroy, 2011 Masters
Like Scott, a major win at the 2011 U.S. Open would help Rory McIlroy get the bad taste of a Masters collapse out of his mouth. Cause McIlroy laid waste to Augusta that year, roaring out with a seven-under 65 during the first round and maintaining a lead through Saturday, with a 12-under after 54 holes (four strokes ahead of four other golfers, including Angel Cabrera). He was the youngest player ever to lead after the first day (he was 21), but would succumb to the enormous pressure on Sunday. He carded the worst round ever shot by a Masters’ 54-hole leader, signing his name to an un-Godly 80, sending him all the way to a tie for 15th. His complete undoing was a four-putt performance on the par-3 12th for a double bogey. Charl Schwartzel would win with tournament by two strokes over Adam Scott and Jason Day.
4. Phil Mickelson, 2006 U.S. Open
The Mick has had a great career, so no tears should be shed for the five-time major winner. He’s won ’em all, except for the U.S. Open, a huge personal bugaboo. In fact, he’s made finishing second at that tournament a very bad habit. The worst was 2006 at Winged Foot. Mickelson was the outright leader after 69 holes and was set to become just the third golfer in history to win three majors in a row (Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan being the others). He’d bogey No. 16 and par the 17th to hold a one stroke lead heading into the par-4 18th. Needing just par to win, his first bad decision was pulling out his driver, after he had missed 11 of his last 13 fairways. Sure enough, he shanked his drive wide right into the trees. Instead of chipping out, he decided to go for the green. That shot hit another tree, advancing just 50 feet. He found a green-side bunker, dribbled the chip over the green and couldn’t drain a bogey-chip to for a playoff. Geoff Ogilvy could hardly believe his luck in the clubhouse — watching Mickelson fritter away the tournament.
3. Dustin Johnson, 2010 U.S. Open
Johnson has blown leads before, but his massive choke at Pebble Beach in 2010 was on an entirely different level. Fairly new to the tour (he got his first card in 2008), Johnson scrapped his way up the leader board, shooting 71, then 70, and finally a superb 5-under 66 to give him a three-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell after 54 holes. But, his fall from the lead would be swift and early, when he triple-bogeyed the second hole and doubled the third, tumbling all the way from first to a hugely disappointing tie for eighth (he shot 82). McDowell, on the other hand, shot an uninspiring 3-over 74, but still managed to take home the trophy by a stroke over France’s Gregory Havret. Johnson would also find disappointment at the 2010 PGA Championship, coughing up a lead after seemingly ground his club in a bunker on No. 18 and taking a controversial two-stroke penalty.
2. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters
Greg Norman’s bad, bad luck (and play) at several Masters’ tournaments can only be matched by Nick Faldo’s good fortune (as well as play) at Augusta. Just seven years after claiming an improbable win from the above-mentioned Scott Hoch, Faldo would shoot a superb 5-under 67 to claim his third green jacket. Norman, on the other hand, would fritter away his six-shot cushion over Englishman Faldo with a final round 78, continuing a disturbing Masters Sunday trend. It was almost palpable in ’96, seeing the air get sucked out of Norman’s balloon yet again. The lowlights of his Sunday round included three straight bogeys heading into Amen Corner (holes No. 9-11) and then a double-bogey five at the par-3 12th when his first shot found water. The epitome of that round was his shank into the water at the par-3 16th, which would ultimately doom him to yet another second-place finish.
1. Jean van de Velde, 1999 British Open
And the “winner” of the worst collapse in a major ever goes to Jean van de Velde. The unheralded Frenchman went to the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie, thoughts of being the first Frenchman to win it since 1907 furthest from his mind. Yet, van de Velde scratched and clawed away the links to hold a five shot lead (at even par) going into Sunday’s action. Somewhere in the back of the pack that day, Paul Lawrie sat ten shots back. At the end of the proceedings, he would find himself in an improbable playoff with van de Velde and Justin Leonard, winning it in a four-hole playoff. The Frenchman’s play on the last hole goes down as the biggest brain cramp ever. He pulled out driver, needing just a double bogey six to win it. First mistake. His drive sailed well wide and was lucky to find land. His second shot found a railing on the grandstand and sailed backwards into deep rough. He shanked that into the Barry Burn and had to take a drop. He found a bunker, missed his double bogey sixth shot and had to settle for a short triple bogey putt to get into the playoff. The image of him, shoeless in the Barry Burn contemplating his fate, is priceless.