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Muirfield contenders show difficulty in winning majors

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It’s not easy. Never was. Tiger Woods just lulled the collective into thinking that winning major championships was as natural as slipping on a red golf shirt.

That’s what happens when you win 14 of your first 46 majors, a .304 clip that made surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 major championships a foregone conclusion. Since 2008, however, Woods has posted an 0-for-17 mark in the big events.

Maybe the rank and file around Woods raised its game, maybe it’s a confidence thing – we’ll leave such esoteric questions to the armchair analyst. What is not up for debate is the degree of difficulty involved when a major hangs in the balance – whether you’re vying for your first or 15th.

Look no further than Muirfield and last Sunday’s gloomy final round when the top three players on the leaderboard to begin the final lap carded a closing-round average of 74.6.

Woods three-putted the first and fourth holes to sign for a 74, while Lee Westwood, two shots clear of the field to begin the final round, slipped out of the lead with three bogeys before the turn and sealed his fate with a bogey at the 13th on his way to a 75 and another tie for third.

Or maybe Hunter Mahan is a better case study. Mahan was tied for second place with Woods to begin the last 18 at the Open Championship, only to bogey three of his first six holes on his way to a tie for ninth.

For the second consecutive major Sunday, Mahan set out in the final group only to sign for another 75, the same score he posted on the last day at Merion. Yet where some see disappointment, Mahan embraces development. For the vast majority the road to Grand Slam glory is littered with failure; everyone knows that, even Woods.

“He said it best; when he came off the golf course at the U.S. Open they asked him if this was a letdown? And Hunter said, ‘I came into today knowing I could win and I leave today knowing I can win,’” said Sean Foley, the swing coach for all three Sunday contenders. “The only thing that will ever teach a player that is the experience. Until they see it for themselves it doesn’t really matter.”

No one knows that better than Westwood, who has finished in the top three at all four majors – call it the Show Slam. Through three rounds, however, Muirfield had all the markings of being his time.

About a month ago, Westwood began working with Foley. Nothing dramatic, “it’s not golf swing, it’s been about posture and dynamic loading. I don’t think I will ever do much to change his swing,” Foley said of one of the game’s perennially best ball-strikers.

Westwood also recently teamed with Ian Baker-Finch to improve his putting, a potent combination that lifted him to first in the field in total putts last week.

Maybe even more compelling was how relaxed the Englishman was even as the questions mounted as he inched closer to that elusive first major.

“I'm not in a high-pressure situation, because I'm going to go have dinner, and I'm so good with a knife and fork now that I don't feel any pressure at all,” Westwood smiled on the eve of the final round.

Westwood’s son, Sam, was with him last week on the East Lothian coast. The only other time the 12-year-old joined his father on the road was at the 2012 Nordea Masters, which Westwood won by five strokes.

“It’s helped having Sam along,” said Westwood’s manager with International Sports Management, Chubby Chandler. “Everything is perspective and good balance. It’s the youthful innocence of a 12-year-old.”

In practical terms, there was nothing to suggest this wasn’t Westwood’s time. But then golf, particularly the Grand Slam variety, eschews scripts. If something feels too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s why just one of the last eight 54-hole leaders at a major (Rory McIlroy at last year’s PGA Championship being the lone exception) has gone on to win, and why neither pedigrees nor sense of purpose assures success no matter how perfectly the stars seems aligned.

Late last Saturday an argument could be made that there wasn’t a better time for any of the top three contenders at Muirfield. Woods’ ball-striking and game plan seemed perfectly suited for the brown and bouncy links, Westwood’s putting and perspective made him the sentimental favorite, while Mahan’s resume suggested he’d completed his due diligence and was, well, due.

History, however, is littered with players who were one bad bounce away from Grand Slam glory. The simple truth is, it was never easy, no matter how effortless Woods made it look.

But it’s also a fact that there’s nothing wrong with Woods, Westwood or Mahan that the next major can’t fix.