Think about the ramifications of Adam Scott’s collapse at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s:
• Four consecutive bogeys to blow a four-stroke lead with four holes could leave permanent, or at least years-lasting, psychological scars and prevent Scott from ever winning a major.
• The “Curse of the 54-Hole Lead” struck again, as it has now in all three 2012 majors – including Peter Hanson’s Saturday night lead at Augusta National, and Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell’s Saturday night co-lead at Olympic Club. The third-round leader at next month’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island will thrash at his bed sheets all Saturday eve.
• And perhaps most impactful, Scott’s collapse denied caddie Steve Williams the gorilla dunk of gloats, a major win in old boss Tiger Woods’ face. Rumor was, had Scott cruised home to victory, Williams planned the old Leslie Nielsen/Enrico Palazzo “Naked Gun” moonwalk-into-splits dance routine coming up the 18th fairway at Lytham.
Alas. No moonwalk-into-splits for “Stevie”.
Speaking of Tiger Woods, turns out he can’t handle weekends at majors anymore, either. His 70-73 weekend means the 14-time major champion is now plus-13 on his six weekend rounds at majors this year. This is the ultimate Sunday winner we’re talking about. This is Tiger Woods. And he hasn’t broken 70 on a weekend at a major.
This is our larger point today, golf fans. What happened to Adam Scott has happened to so many others because there are so few stone-cold killers – if any – remaining on the golf scene since Tiger scattered a decade of challenger carcasses across the landscape. The most quoted statistic in Tiger’s world – that all of his 14 majors have come with at least a share of the 54-hole lead – means that nobody ever closed the deal like Tiger. For a decade, we got spoiled. If we thought that closer quality could transfer to guys like Adam Scott – gifted with a supremely beautiful golf swing, even temperament, ball-striking par excellence – we were wrong. Turns out it’s hard. Really hard. And guys like Adam Scott have never learned how to do it, mostly because Tiger was squirreling away majors while they collected meaningless top-25s.
Scott’s collapse barreled down on Lytham like one of those trains that runs by the first hole there. It hung over the scene like one of those ever-present storm clouds from the nearby Irish Sea. He’s a classic product of the Tiger Era – a player so talented, you’d think he’d own a handful of majors; but a guy who arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, just when Tiger was snuffing out every player who came his way.
Scott is the classic case of the also-ran generation from Tiger’s dominance. While Scott is so good, he still got his wins – a 2004 Players Championship, a 2006 Tour Championship, and last year’s World Golf Championship at Firestone (remember Steve Williams’ celebration?) – one wondered when he’d get a major.
By hiring Williams as his caddie, he seemed serious about the quest, too. Williams is deeply unpopular with the media, and after his insensitive remarks about Tiger at a banquet earlier this year, not exactly in the running for “Sportsman of the Year”. But by hiring Williams, Scott was hiring the best, a guy who’d ridden shotgun with Tiger for 13 major championships, and a guy who’d know how to calm his player down on Sunday back nines, and a guy who’d know how to club him under major championship pressure.
And when Scott made birdie on the 14th hole to extend his lead to four shots, and walked over to Williams greenside, the smile on Williams’ face said it all: We’re relaxed, mate. We’re doing this, mate. And if you want to talk New Zealand rugby or Aussie Rules Football, let’s do it, mate – because you’re about to be British Open champion.
Except, it all went wrong.
After a bogey from a bunker on 15 raised the smallest of eyebrows, Scott came to the statistically-easiest hole on the golf course. He even eschewed driver on the drivable par-4 16th, as if to show he was going to be like Williams’ old boss and par his way in calmly. When his approach from the fairway on 16 was too far from the flagstick to feel good, and when his lag putt left too much vegemite on that sandwich, all the fears began to percolate. Scott’s putting has been so unreliable that his switch to the broom-handle atrocity last year was viewed as both an admission of his lack of nerve and as an inevitable move. When all else fails, the thinking went, try the most absurd thing.
Consider that in the PGA Tour statistic of “Strokes Gained – Putting”, Scott ranked 178th, 180th, and 186th from 2008-10. The broom handle boosted him to 146th last year, and this year’s 77th ranking is seen almost as a boon.
But when the pressure comes, old ghosts haunt. And so it was that Scott lipped out the shortie on 16. Bogey. Two stroke lead. Now, his nerves were almost visible. The placid Scott demeanor went from indicating calm to barely hiding nausea.
His approach into 17 was long and left, into the rough. He couldn’t handle the chip out, and left himself 25 feet for par. No way. Bogey No. 3, and when Ernie Els was pouring home his birdie on 18, you could see the tsunami of pain about to crash on Scott. You could almost see Williams begin to distance himself from Scott, with the thought bubble: “Man. My old boss never pulled this kind of malarkey down the stretch.”
Scott was able to hit a gorgeous third on No. 18 after a fairway bunker nearly ended it right then and there. He had about 10 feet for a playoff. My mind immediately flashed to another Scott-like player, Sergio Garcia – skilled, awful putter, road kill in the Tiger Era – and to El Nino’s similar putt to win the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie. Just as we all knew Sergio would miss that putt, when Scott drew back that javelin of a putter and tried that 10-footer for a playoff, it never had a chance.
While Ernie Els was champion golfer of the year, Adam Scott authored one of the great collapses in recent major championship history and we were left to remember the good old days, when Tiger Woods used to take 54-hole leads and stuff them in a lock box. Now, Tiger’s bogeying his way through Sundays, 54-hole leaders are nervous and flailing, and major championships are a Sunday crapshoot – our 16th consecutive different winner.
And, no moonwalk-into-splits for Stevie.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
67-70-68-68 – 7-under 273, Ernie Els, champion, The Open Championship, Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, Lytham St. Anne’s, Lancashire, England.
The British Open champion, naturally, among many rewards, receives an invitation to next year’s Masters. While Els likely would have earned his way back through world ranking points, still – it is one of those delicious things that happened when the Big Easy proved to be the best man in the field.
After all, the green jackets did not extend Els a special invitation this year, perhaps justifiably, since he’s never won a Masters. But you can only imagine how sweet it will feel for Els to lay some rubber down Magnolia Lane, and perhaps spin a couple of donuts in the circular driveway when he arrives next April.
He can screech his tires to a halt, pop out of the car and chuck his keys to the nearest green jacket, barking: “I’ll take a wash and wax while you’re at it”, before disappearing into the clubhouse.
If only! Surely, the classy Els will act the gentleman, and leave the immaturity to guys like me.
In the meantime: What. A. Win.
I won’t hide the fact that Els is my all-time favorite player, mainly for that swing tempo, but also for his style, grace, good humor and general all-around Ernie-ness. Yes, he can be short with reporters at times. But the golf world is a better place with Els winning, and what makes this 2012 Open extra sweet is not just that Els now has four majors, not just that Els now has majors in three different decades, not just that
Els joins a select list of six players with two U.S. Opens and two British Opens, but for his resolve.
Last year, Els notched only one top-10 all year, and it was in a Fall Series event when nobody was looking. He missed cuts at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, and when his 2012 quest to get back to Augusta ran into a series of near-misses in the spring, particularly on the putting green, many thought Els, at 42, was in the sunset of his career.
Moreover, his public stance and awareness-raising about his son Ben’s autism made him an even more identifiable and sympathetic character, a rich and famous golfer whose personal travails are no different, and in some ways, even harder than the average person. His work for autism is admirable, but it also seemed to coincide with the end of his effective playing days.
And then, this: a flash of fight, a spirited competitive resurgence, a prideful stand with a Claret Jug at stake. A back-nine 32! The win allowed us to see Els at the Claret Jug ceremony in his full glory, too: Offering heartfelt and public friendship and commiseration to Scott, teasing the crowd for their weeklong support (“Did you do that to make me feel better, or did you really believe?”) and going out of his way to praise Nelson Mandela, who turned 94 last week.
It was a Grand Slam of a champion’s speech, even if Els remains a Masters and a PGA Championship shy of the Grand Slam won by his countryman and idol, Gary Player. A pair of 68s on the weekend, and a birdie at the last from that belly putter that has so often balked of late meant the Big Easy can still summon magic. See you at Muirfield, Ernie, as that big yellow scoreboard says.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
“He’s just not the man we knew a number of years ago.” – Curtis Strange, ESPN, on Tiger Woods.
A major championship week is always rife with potential B.M.O.W.s, including Paul Azinger’s trashing of Twitter contributors who disagree with him (“what a bunch of clowns,” he said), the rules kerfluffle on Adam Scott’s front nine, or the unseen BBC reporter who asked Scott if the four bogeys down the stretch hurt him. (Ya think?)
But we need to spend a moment on Tiger, and Strange affords us the opportunity. Strange made his remark as Tiger was oddly sleepwalking through the final holes where, it turned out given Scott’s travails, he could have made a move. Tiger’s triple bogey on No. 6 – starting with the blue-light, Hurt Shop special of a fried-egg lie abutting a bunker face – almost seemed to knock him out. Yes, he made birdie on the next hole; and yes, he made birdie on Nos. 10 and 12 to creep within four of the lead, but the hat trick of bogeys on Nos. 13-14-15 again confirmed Tiger’s post-Y.E. Yang-at-Hazeltine, post-Escalade-into-a-fire-hydrant major championship mortality.
It’s now been 13 majors without a win, and while we do hold Tiger to a ridiculous standard – What? He hasn’t won a major in THIRTEEN STARTS? Heavens to Betsy! – we do need to acknowledge some truths.
His three wins this year indicate he remains the master of some domains – specifically Bay Hill, Memorial and his own AT&T at Congressional – but his failure to break 70 on a weekend at a major indicates he remains maddeningly unable to find that extra gear at the championships he cherishes most. While he has ratcheted up his driving accuracy to unprecedented statistical brilliance under new coach Sean Foley, his distance control with wedges has plummeted and, most notably, his putter is startling in its ordinariness.
Whether it’s because his work on his new swing has taken away from his putting practice, whether it’s because he feels less bullet-proof since his public flogging post-scandal, or whether it’s because otherworldly, radioactively-hot putters can’t exist for decades, unscathed, Tiger on the greens is no longer a special thing.
Just by way of example: he missed a 14-footer for birdie on No. 3 that could have jump started his round; missed a birdie chance on No. 4, too; and most notably missed a 5-footer for double bogey on No. 6 that could have stemmed some bleeding. All that means is, Tiger is more like other players now, enduring the routine feeling of missed putts.
That said, Tiger finished tie-3rd at the British Open, his best finish at a major since his runner-up to Yang at Hazeltine. Clearly, the man is knocking at the door. But just as clearly, as his career-long 13-major drought indicates, he is performing in a new world, with new challenges. Those challenges include his health, as Tiger showed signs of the old limp after an awkward stance on that 6th hole bunker. While he insists his surgeries have cleaned up his knees, they remain on the watch list.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
Adam Scott, come on down. You have a lock on M.O.W. (Graeme McDowell is happy about this, as it allows us to bypass his snipe into the gorse on No. 11, a shot Azinger suggested might be McDowell’s “worst in 20 years”.)
The Aussie will think of the final four holes over and over again, and our challenge is to choose which shot damaged him the most in the collapse. Surely, a candidate is the tee shot on 18, which landed in a fairway bunker and led to bogey. Or, perhaps, his second shot on 17, a missed green from the fairway that led to bogey.
But his crumble was never more apparent than on the 16th hole, the easiest hole at Lytham. His conservative play off the tee showed a man in control of his nerves, but his indifferent approach led to a long lag putt. The remaining 3 feet or so suddenly looked long, and when Scott lipped out that little thing, the gasp could be heard from Lytham to Sydney.
That stroke was the culprit. If Scott had made the par putt on 16, he’d keep a two-shot lead walking to 17 tee, and feel in control. By missing it, he unlocked the dungeon door, and the demons of the golf world came flying out, at warp speed. Hence, the trouble on 17 and 18.
So, in the interest of a good guy winning his first major, and in the interest of not seeing a grown man self-immolate on worldwide TV, let’s go back out to the 16th green, remind Scott that it’s just a little ole putt, convince him he’s on the practice range back home, or get him to think about anything but the Claret Jug, place that golf ball 36 inches from the hole and . . . give that poor guy a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Let’s take Ernie Els’ lead and blow off our appointments. Els said in his acceptance speech that he had a flight scheduled to Canada for the Canadian Open, but wanted to fly to London to see his family and “blow that thing off”. Nothing like the freedom of blowing off an engagement, armed with a Claret Jug.
Els is entered at the Canadian Open, but Adam Scott is not. He might want to spend the next few weeks entering shock therapy to forget about his final four holes.
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