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When First Is Worst

Upon further review what happened Sunday in Paris on the European Tour and in West Virginia on the U.S. PGA Tour was the rule, not the exception. And to take it one psychological step further, the scourge of tournament golf is not so much 54-hole leads specifically as it is expectations in general.

Kevin Stadler’s four-shot overnight lead on the European Tour disappeared in a hurry at stormy Le Golf National. He fought back. But it all went horribly wrong when he missed a short putt on the 72nd hole to hand a surging Graeme McDowell victory.

At the Greenbrier Classic, Billy Hurley’s two-shot, 54-hole lead vanished even faster Sunday when he bogeyed four of his first seven holes. He never recovered.

Make no mistake, having a lead should be a good thing. It’s the expectations that go with those leads that can cause so much trouble. Any golf shrink worth his Freud Cliff’s Notes will tell you that.

We see this almost every week. Players at the top of the leaderboard have to fight the notion that they have “something to lose” when they are ahead. Those behind them are unburdened and freed of the consequences that go with having blown a lead.

The Greenbrier Classic alone offers proof. No 54-hole leader in the event’s history has won.

But the pressures of front-running are just a subset of the curse of expectations.

Golf is a game in which it is more important to allow yourself to win rather than force your will upon the course and the field. It is not mixed martial arts where the best bully wins.

And this is a significant reason (injuries, of course, factor in here) why Tiger Woods has stalled at 14 major victories in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ career 18.

Expectations made it much more difficult for Jack Nicklaus to win a single-season Grand Slam. He never did.

Worse, expectations grow with time.

Which made it that much harder for Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson at the PGA Championship; Sam Snead at the U.S. Open; and Colin Montgomerie at any major. Growing expectations are why Phil Mickelson has to answer more questions every year about why he has finished second six times in our national championship without finishing first once.

There is no easy solution to this. You can’t build a strategy on the concept that it’s a bad thing to sleep on a Saturday night lead and must be avoided at all costs.

There’s no one answer or size that fits all here. Every golfer’s mental, emotional and physical makeup is different.

The best indirect commentary on all of this, heard during the weekend, came from McDowell when asked about being a defending champion.

“Eventually,” McDowell said, “you learn that when it comes to Thursday morning, you’re just another player.”

That, no pun intended, is a terrific starting point.


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