Who’s going to blow it at Congressional Country Club?
Who’s going to squander a chance to win the U.S. Open?
Who’s going to walk away from the year’s second major championship with the most scars?
They are nasty questions, to be sure, but they’re relevant given the cruel nature of major championship golf.
No sport humiliates its best players in its biggest events the way golf routinely does.
Sure, in baseball, you get a bouncing ball through the legs of a first baseman that flattens a man’s spirit beyond a World Series the way Bill Buckner’s error cost him and the Boston Red Sox in 1986 . . .
In football, you get a wide open receiver saddled with the scarring memory of dropping a touchdown pass the way Cowboys’ tight end Jackie Smith did in a Super Bowl loss in the 1978 season . . .
In basketball, you’ll see a flustered player like Michigan’s Chris Webber calling a timeout his team didn’t possess in 1993 to blow a shot at a national championship . . .
But the profound nature of those individual failures isn’t nearly as routine as it is in golf.
Just look at the last 12 months in majors.
At last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, there’s the image of 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson burned into the brain, with Johnson turned around on Sunday, miserably swiping left-handed from the junk alongside the second green on his way to a triple-bogey 7 and final-round 82.
There was Johnson, again, at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, blowing his tee shot wildly right at the last hole with a chance to win, his errant shot screaming onto a hill where he infamously grounded his club in a camouflaged bunker. The jarring nature of it overshadowed the memory of Nick Watney blowing a three-shot lead with an 81 that same day.
And then there was Rory McIlroy squandering his four-shot lead at the Masters, the disorienting image of him back between the Peek and Berckmans cabins after ricocheting his tee shot off a tree at the 10th hole. His triple-bogey 7 there led to an 80.
If there was a Hall of Infamy in golf, it would include so many more members than the Hall of Fame.
That’s because failure is disproportionately meted out in this solitary, lonesome sport.
One man will win at Congressional, and in the starkest terms, 155 will lose.
“Golf is the most assaultive sport on the sense of self that there is,” Preston Waddington, a therapist specializing in the psychology of shame, told me after the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. That’s the championship that ended with Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen looking like the gang that couldn’t putt straight at the 72nd hole. That’s the year Cink missed an 18-inch putt, a stroke that could have gotten him into a playoff with Goosen missing a 2-footer right behind him. Waddington began working with Cink after that.
“At any moment you can be exalted in golf, and the next feel like you're the biggest piece of cow crap on the face of the earth,” Waddington said. “Golf is a very shaming sport. Every single golfer I've dealt with is scared to death of being shamed. You touch on that with a player, you have their attention.”
For every winner of a major, there are a dozen men who felt like they could have won, should have won, who feel like they lost the championship.
The game’s biggest names aren’t spared.
Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper with nine holes to play at the Olympic Club in the 1966 U.S. Open. Sam Snead needed a par at the final hole at Philadelphia Country Club to win his first U.S. Open in 1939 and made triple-bogey 8. The leader going into the final round of the 1940 U.S. Open at Canterbury, Snead shot 81. Greg Norman famously collapsed with his six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters. Jean Van de Velde melted down at the final hole of the 1999 British Open. You could go on and on.
The U.S. Open, more than any other major, feels like it’s about who’s going to lose more than it’s about who’s going to win.
The tone was set in the very first competition back in 1895, when Willie Campbell made a sextuple-bogey 9 in the final nine holes to blow a chance to win.
The U.S. Open is the proverbial “War of Attrition,” the major that’s all about rewarding the players who make the fewest mistakes.
With the narrowest fairways in major championships, with the deepest rough, the U.S. Open doles out failure in especially heavy doses.
The risk of blowing it, of failing spectacularly in the spotlight, of choking, gagging and collapsing . . . that’s what makes those final, dramatic moments so compelling in the majors. Whether you admit it or not, you’ll likely be watching to see who loses the U.S. Open as much as you’ll be watching to see who wins it. It’s the nature of the test.
Graeme McDowell, the U.S. Open defending champion, arrives at Congressional to defend his title dealing with the angst of having shot a final-round 79 to blow a chance to win The Players Championship last month and having shot a third-round 81 in his failed title defense at the Wales Open the week before last.
“It’s just the craziness of this sport, you never really know what’s around the corner,” McDowell said.
Failure will be waiting in more abundance at Congressional than success. It’s the nature of major championship golf.