Is there a male professional golfer today, with the obvious exception of one Tiger Woods, who can routinely close out a tournament? Personally, having never slept on a third-round tournament lead (and not planning to any time soon), I can't attest to whether or not doing so is one of the most uncomfortable positions in sports, as so many talking heads claim it is, but I can understand how it easily could be.
Watching this past week's Lehman meltdown got me thinking about the phenomenon of the final-round failure versus that of the front-running door slammer. With respect to Mr. Lehman, I have always perceived him as something of a fluke winner who was rather overrated in his prime; in a real way, it was by virtue of such a fluke that he found himself in the position that he did entering the fourth round. As such, I'm not surprised that his door slamming ability was lacking, since I had no particular reverence for his ability in that regard during his peak playing years.
I was, however, honestly surprised earlier this year when Greg Norman was unable to come away with a victory at the British Open. This may seem contradictory, especially given the logic which I previously employed for Lehman. Norman, even in his prime, had several final-round meltdowns, but it seemed to me that the ability to slam the door was something well within his possession.
Perhaps my view on this ability, whether it is latent or manifest, is distorted by one particular event. The 1986 (not 1996) Masters, in which Jack Nicklaus seemingly "came out of hibernation" made the whole issue of slamming the door seem rather black and white. Winners, when they are in position to win, do so. The rest do not. True, this deviates from the earlier discussion in that Nicklaus didn't have the third-round lead, but he was able to awaken a streak of winning form at the right time in order to get the job done.
I believe I made mention of this faculty in my less than enthusiastically-received piece on grinding a few weeks back. Discovering the right form at the right time almost certainly involves an element of luck, but there is something to be said for the ability to routinely identify a task (making the cut, making birdie, winning the tournament, holing a seven footer) which must be completed, preferably in order to accomplish a larger goal, and completing it.
It's an ability which few are blessed with and even fewer really aspire to on the golf course, I think. Lord knows, I certainly don't. After a pull hook into the foliage on the first tee, I'm ready for refreshments in the grill room, not a rallying of the troops to right the ship and triumphantly salvage par.
Complacency, really, is the issue here. It's easy to settle when you're content with something less than your absolute best and second place, with the resultant $600,000 paycheck is good enough. I'm not blaming Lehman, or anyone else, for becoming complacent, whether they do so the night before the final round or after a less than stellar front nine. In an effort at making such professional complacency look better, I offer you a hypothetical scenario in which a certain Ben Alberstadt finds himself in the lead after three rounds of, let's say, this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Q. Ben, great round today. 66 puts you two strokes ahead going into tomorrow. What's your thought process like heading into the final round?
Ben Alberstadt: Thought process? Well I know that if I shoot 87 I'll still make $120,000… that's a pretty good position to be in. I mean, I might just go out there and smack it around with a putter to collect the cash. I mean, $120,000? That's more than 95% of America makes in a year. Winning is nice and all, but as long as I don't drop dead, I'll be set for the year.
Q. So, you're not worried about winning?
B.A. Not… really… no.
Q. How do you think you'll sleep on the lead?
B.A. Oh just fine. By three tomorrow you probably won't see a single shot I hit on television, and given my usual enormous galleries, it'll just be a nice Sunday round of golf. I mean, I break 80 and I'm making four times what you will this year… what's there to be nervous about?
Q. Do you think the pins will be accessible tomorrow?
B.A. Well, it's Sunday, so probably less so than earlier this week. Hell, I haven't had any problem so far, what's to worry about? If I start thinking about making birdies, I'll probably pee my pants. Better to blow up early and sail home.
As you can see, I wouldn't be closing the door on Sunday. It takes a particular kind of determination which few seem to possess. Complacency is rampant amongst established Tour Pros. Is that a surprise?
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