PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The final three holes at TPC Sawgrass are an hour-long gut check. They have the power to shape a player’s reputation.
Think about the transformation of Rickie Fowler. His finish here last year was so thrilling, so memorable and so historic – 5 under for his last four holes, then two birdies in the playoff – that it immediately altered the trajectory of his career, not to mention how the public and his peers viewed him. A few more titles, a few more stellar final rounds, and suddenly, Fowler had become a “great closer.”
Is there a greater compliment in the sport?
Players who perform the best late in tournaments are labeled as “clutch” and “mentally tough” and “fearless”. It’s the quality that separates the Tour elite from the rank-and-file – the ability to summon the best shots when the pressure is at its most intense, when the stakes are the highest.
No player performed better in that cauldron than Tiger Woods; much of his mystique was built on his Mariano Rivera-like record when holding a lead. Woods closed out tournaments at a cold-blooded 95 percent clip in his career, a conversion rate that likely won’t be approached again.
But Woods is best viewed as the ultimate outlier. This season, only nine of 26 third-round leaders (36 percent) have gone on to win, and none since journeyman Jim Herman cashed in six weeks ago in Houston.
It is why this week’s Players Championship should be particularly revealing: TPC Sawgrass’ finishing stretch requires equal parts skill and nerve, and lately even the game’s marquee players have had their fair share of weekend wobbles.
Fowler kicked away leads at Phoenix, Honda and last week at Quail Hollow.
Rory McIlroy coughed up a three-shot lead at Doral.
Jason Day led in Hilton Head before a Saturday 79.
Phil Mickelson couldn’t nail down a win in Pebble Beach.
And then, of course, there is Jordan Spieth, who held a five-shot lead at the Masters with nine holes to play but wound up slipping the green jacket onto another man’s shoulders.
It’s only natural to wonder where Spieth goes from here, how he will recover, whether the next time he’s in position to win he’ll think back to (a) the two majors and five Tour titles, or (b) the meltdown on the 12th hole at Augusta.
We’ll find out soon enough, of course, but Spieth maintains that he’s “not affected by it.”
“If I hit a good shot and it catches a gust and it goes in the water, it’s not because of the Masters,” he said. “It’s not because something was in my head. It takes a lot of nerve to hit the right shots down the stretch here.”
One bad miss at the wrong time on the biggest stage might have dented his reputation as a shutdown closer, but Spieth still had converted his last five opportunities before Augusta. Even with his wounds so fresh, he is an authoritative source on what makes a good closer.
“It’s someone who starts to feel the pressure and then actually really enjoys it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they produce the shots right away, because they can hit the shots that they think are great shots that don’t end up turning out the right way … but if someone gets into that position, they love it, they embrace it, they love the adrenaline rush, that to me would make a good closer. For me personally, that’s always been why I love the game.”
But it’s a learned behavior, for Spieth, McIlroy and everyone else.
Spieth had a frustrating 2014 before steamrolling the field at the Australian Open with a closing 63. His next 10 months were among the best in the history of the sport.
McIlroy imploded on the final day of the 2011 Masters, but at the Honda Classic the following year – when No. 1 was on the line, when Woods had shot 62 – he proved that he could hit the right shot at the right time. He now has four majors.
“It takes experience,” McIlroy said. “It takes losing a few first before understanding what you need to do.”
Day seems to have found his groove, too, after beginning his career 1-for-7 with a 54-hole lead. Now, he has converted his last four opportunities in that position.
Two learning experiences stand out: A 2007 Nationwide Tour event, when he broke up with his girlfriend on the eve of the final round, struck a spectator on his first hole and shot 80; and then the 2008 Barclays, when he shot 74 but marveled at how Sergio Garcia got himself into a playoff without his best stuff. The lesson? Oftentimes, it doesn’t require a Herculean effort to win.
“You fail enough times, hopefully you learn from it and try and get better,” Day said. “That’s how you improve yourself. The moment where you dwell on I should have won this and I should have done that, and you look at the wrong things and don’t really learn, that’s when you’re going to make the same mistakes over and over again.”
A year after Fowler’s fast finish here, it’s clear that closing remains a work in progress.
His thrilling Players title followed a familiar pattern – four of his five pro titles have come when he trailed after three rounds. When staked to a 54-hole lead, however, like he was last week at Quail Hollow, he is now 0-for-3.
It has led to criticism that he’s too soft and too “nice,” as if being human is somehow a two-stroke penalty.
When asked this week if players need a killer instinct to be a “great closer,” Fowler smiled.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I did OK here last year.”