Talk about a costume change. A week after the grueling U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club, everything about the PGA Tour stop in Connecticut this week was startlingly different.
Players shot 61 (Hunter Mahan) and 62 (Marc Leishman) on a Sunday. The winning score was 14-under, not 1-over. Approaches to flagsticks sucked back on receptive greens instead of the fierce ricochet of a USGA-baked landing area. Even the scenery – Olympic's frame-worthy Monterey pine and cypress trees gave way to the bland background of development homes surrounding TPC River Highlands.
Yes, everything was different – oh, all except for one thing. Holding a two-shot lead late on a Sunday back nine is apparently the new whammy.
Or, as Jim Furyk could have texted to fellow Sunday-back-nine sufferer Charley Hoffman: "Feel ur pain, dude. If u want 2 agonize, here's my number. Call me maybe."
Where is golf's Mariano Rivera, its Trevor Hoffman? Unfortunately for Charley, a shared surname is all he has in common with baseball's second all-time leading save man.
Like Furyk at Olympic, Hoffman watched certain victory slither away under the smoldering pressure of expectation. In Furyk's case last week, it was a two-shot lead frittered away by a bogey at the par-3 13th, bogey at the par-5 16th and an ordinary par on the birdie-able par-5 17th. Presto, the U.S. Open trophy went to Webb Simpson, a guy who'd finished 45 minutes earlier. He spent the time chill-axing in the Olympic Club locker room, watching smart phone videos of his 16-month-old with his pregnant wife when he wasn't watching Furyk implode.
A week later, the win goes to a guy who finished a full two hours and 22 minutes before the last putt fell. This time, it was Marc Leishman, and he spent most of his late afternoon chill-axing in the TPC River Highlands clubhouse, knocking back bottles of water while watching Italy take down England in penalty kicks at Euro 2012, when he wasn't watching Charley Hoffman implode.
Chill-axing in the clubhouse late on a Sunday: It's the new "Tiger Red Shirt" on the golf scene.
I mention Tiger because he was the greatest closer golf ever saw. With a 54-hole lead, Tiger Woods was as air-tight as Fort Knox. But that was way back when. Ever since Y.E. Yang caught Tiger from behind and tackled him in the open field at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Tiger hasn't been as ruthless as he once was.
And his fallibility seems to have spread around the game. Young Rory McIlroy blew the 2011 Masters. Jason Dufner blew the 2011 PGA Championship. Peter Hanson blew the 2012 Masters. And Furyk will never forget Olympic 2012. Those were all majors – but the bad juju extends to regular tour stops, too.
Hoffman flared his tee shot into the water on No. 17 for a double bogey, missed the fairway on No. 18, dumped his approach into a short-sided bunker and made bogey to blow his two-shot lead. Brian Davis held the 54-hole lead with Roland Thatcher but bogeyed Nos. 10 and 12. Thatcher bogeyed Nos. 15 and 18. Even Bubba Watson, fresh off essentially blowing off the U.S. Open, shot a tasty Sunday 65, but hit a tee shot into the water on the back nine to cost him a chance.
The irony of it is, Hoffman shot 66! He leaves the Travelers Championship a tragic figure, after dropping "double sixes" on a Sunday. Just goes to show, as my father often told me, it's the devil's own game.
No, it wasn't the U.S. Open. And no, it's not Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie. But the larger lesson is, no sport takes a presumed winner and grinds them into a fine powder like golf. No sport teases and tantalizes and ultimately injures the soul like golf. Two weeks in a row, we see a player have his nerve and weaknesses exposed for Johnny Miller and Jim Nantz and the rest of the world to see, and two weeks in a row the winner sees it all unfold from a La-Z-Boy in the locker room.
There's no figuring.
Scorecard of the week
68-66-70-62 – 14-under 266, Marc Leishman, winner, PGA Tour Travelers Championship, TPC River Highlands, Cromwell, Conn.
We can prattle on about Charley Hoffman blowing that two-shot lead with two holes to play, but the fact of the matter is, Marc Leishman, six strokes back when the day started, shot 62 on a Sunday on the PGA Tour. How can you ignore that?
(Actually, Mahan shot 61 to best Leishman by a shot, but it undermines the argument here, so move along.)
A tall, amiable Aussie – so often a redundancy – Leishman finally has his maiden PGA Tour win, after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2009. At age 28, he's the third consecutive winner on tour in his 20s, joining Dustin Johnson in Memphis and Webb Simpson at the U.S. Open. And speaking to my original point, he becomes the fifth player to win a regular tour event in 2012 from way, way back in the pack.
Leishman 's six-stroke comeback pales in comparison to Kyle Stanley's eight-stroke comeback in Phoenix or Brandt Snedeker's seven-stroke sneak attack at Torrey Pines. Of course, our two major winners closed down the stretch, too – Bubba Watson was three back of the lead when Sunday began at Augusta National, and Simpson was four back at Olympic last week.
It may be time for a new slogan down in Ponte Vedra: The PGA Tour … these guys can't hold a lead!
Or, The PGA Tour … these guys choke!
I kid, I kid. There are lessons of perseverance and fight here, bedtime stories you can read to young players. "You, too, can come from back in the pack, li'l duffer: Marc Leishman is your patron saint … The End."
Broadcast moment of the week
"He's playing with a lot of tension. He's playing with a 'don't mess it up' style, instead of a 'let's go for it' style." – Ian Baker Finch, CBS, assessing Charley Hoffman's double-bogey, bogey finish.
"Which is when you usually mess it up." – Jim Nantz, CBS, chiming in.
"Unfortunately." – Baker-Finch, driving the nail into Hoffman's coffin.
That would be your basic "Anatomy of a Breakdown, In Three Parts" from the broadcast booth.
It's like telling your young children: Don't poke a hole in the screen door, only to watch them poke a hole in your screen door. (Not that I speak from experience or anything.)
Mulligan of the week
It would be too easy to give M.O.W. honors to Hoffman's tee shot on 17 (which got wet), or his tee shot on 18 (which nestled in the sidehill rough), or his approach on 18 (which dumped into a short-sided bunker). I'm going to look elsewhere.
And along comes Tim Clark, the scrappy South African who has always made up for his lack of power with an abundance of competitiveness, including a Players Championship win, a victory over Tiger Woods in WGC Match Play, and three Presidents Cups team berths.
Still rounding into form after wrist surgery that cost him 2011, Clark found himself one shot off the lead on the 17th hole, and lagged his birdie try to 2 feet. He would surely tap in, and then head to the 72nd hole with a chance for a birdie and the playoff.
Except … he missed it.
From 24 inches.
Worst part is, he said afterward he knew he was going to miss it.
From 2 feet.
On top of that, he described the incident as "a bullet to the head," graphic enough imagery for one Sunday afternoon.
So, in the interest of no violence on tour, and in the interest of not watching professionals miss 2-footers on the 71st hole on Sundays in contention, let's go back out to the 17th green, place that golf ball 24 inches from the cup, tell Clark to cleanse his mind of all evil thoughts and … give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
After a post-U.S. Open "hangover" week, the tour revs up again with the AT&T National at Congressional, just more than a year after McIlroy supercharged all our expectations with his record U.S. Open win there.
Since then, McIlroy has gone on "love leave" (for all you "Mad Men" fans) and has failed to contend in a major. He's also missed the cut in three of his last four starts. It probably won't surprise you that McIlroy is opting for a home game, entering the European Tour Irish Open at Royal Portrush instead of a Congressional reprise.
We do, however, get Tiger!
Woods will play at the event, which benefits his foundation, after missing the tournament because of knee surgery last year. As I've stated here previously, I'm done figuring out Tiger 2.0. He has the two wins already (very good) and two disappointing majors (not good). He could do anything this week, but we mostly know he's priming himself for the British Open at Royal Lytham, July 19-22.
Furyk will show his face at Congressional after surely several nights tossing and turning thinking of that tee shot on No. 16 or his second on 17 at Olympic. His second Open was in his grasp, and it flew away, like a bird.
Advice for Furyk: Lay back in the pack going into Sunday at Congressional. It's the sure path to victory these days.
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