At Augusta, the Head of the Pack Is Not the Best Place to Be
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because several recent final-round comebacks suggest that Masters hopefuls might not want an early lead.
By Matt Foley
Seeking the third PGA Tour win of his young career, world No. 8-ranked Jon Rahm needed only to remain in control at the Players Championship. But like so many St. Patrick’s Day revelers that third Sunday in March, control eluded the 24-year-old Spaniard. A final-day 4-over-par score sent Rahm tumbling to a 12th-place finish, and he watched Rory McIlroy blast a gutsy drive on 18, then confidently sink a putt, to seal the Northern Irishman’s first tour victory in a year and seventh-straight top 10 finish to start 2019.
This weekend at Augusta National, Rahm may be better off playing catch-up.
Competitive athletes will scoff at the idea that playing from behind could be an advantage, but Sunday leaders have struggled this year on tour — and at recent Masters. Between crushingly high expectations, self-criticism, a looming national audience and unusually late-in-the-day leader tee times, even the best players in the world struggle mightily when carrying a lead into the final round of a tournament. Three weeks after Rahm’s Players collapse, Si Woo Kim shot a 72 to finish tied for fourth after leading for three days at the Valero Texas Open. No one who finished inside the top 30 shot a worse Sunday score. And this has been happening all year. From Justin Thomas’ plus-4 at the Genesis Open to McIlroy’s late stumble at Bay Hill, no player is safe from the Sunday jitters.
Tiger Woods’ dominant performances in the 2000s were the exception to the rule that golf can fray the nerves of even its greats with the pressure of a Sunday lead.
Only seven of 15 stroke play tournaments in 2019 have been won by players holding the lead entering Sunday — and even that number includes Rickie Fowler, who lost a commanding lead at the Phoenix Open before eking out the victory. The start of the 2018 season was similar: Only six of the 13 stroke play tournaments were won by players leading the field before the final day. Most important to those teeing it up at Augusta, just five of the last 10 Masters champions have held at least a share of the lead going into the final day.
In a Masters field that’s tied for the smallest ever (87), there will be no room to breathe when 50 elite players make the weekend cut. “It’s a tiny field, but it’s a crowded group of players that believe they can win,” says ESPN analyst Scott Van Pelt. “Justin Rose will be there every year. Phil [Mickelson] and Tiger [Woods] will be there every year believing they can do it, because they have. That pressure is going to create openings for someone.”
McIlroy has become the recent poster boy for blown leads at Augusta. In 2011, golf fans were ready to anoint the then 21-year-old as the next face of the sport after his opening-round 65. By Sunday night, everyone had an opinion about why Rory couldn’t handle the pressure of golf’s biggest stage, as he shot an unsightly 80 — the highest-ever final-round score by a Masters leader — and finished 15th. Last year, McIlroy played in the final group on Sunday, only to finish six shots behind the winner, Patrick Reed.
He’s far from the only one. Current world No. 2–ranked Dustin Johnson shot an absurd 11-over to fall out of contention in the 2010 U.S. Open, then blew two 18th-hole putts to lose the same tournament in 2015. Jason Dufner choked away a five-stroke lead on the Sunday of the 2011 PGA Championship, losing via playoff. And back at Augusta, one year after capturing a green jacket, Jordan Spieth saw his five-hole lead evaporate on Sunday in 2016. You can even reach back to Hall of Famer Greg Norman’s blown six-shot lead in the 1996 Masters.
In many ways, Woods’ dominant performances in the 2000s — in his 14 major wins, he never came from behind on the final day — were the exception to the rule that golf, especially at the major championship level, can fray the nerves of even its greats with the pressure of a Sunday lead.
The question is whether McIlroy has ascended fully to Tiger-like levels, thanks in part to his Players win. “If he’s in contention on Sunday afternoon, it’s a different Rory than it was before,” says professional golfer and color analyst Curtis Strange. Indeed, in this latest run of brilliance, McIlroy finally seems to have mastered his work on the green, rolling the ball well and confidently standing over putts when it matters most. Yet the last great burden of his career remains at Augusta. Will he charge from behind with the confident swagger that golf fans have come to recognize when McIlroy is stroking it well, or lose focus where some more predictable players would play it safe?
“I truly believe that when Rory is at his best, he’s better than anybody in the game,” says former PGA golfer and ESPN analyst Andy North. “But one reason why he’s so likable is that he’s one of the few unpredictable players on tour. With Rory, you still feel like something can go wrong. But when he’s good, he’s unbeatable.”
Unbeatable? Lets see him hold a Sunday lead.
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