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Third-round leads in majors wasted on the young

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

BETHESDA, Md. -- With one of his young children rather symbolically perched on his right hip, Aaron Baddeley pushed his cap back on his head and pondered the squandered.

There's an interesting contagion making the rounds these days at the majors, particularly at the U.S. Open. Over the past year, three different players in their 20s have not just blown 54-hole leads at Grand Slam events, they failed to break 80 and detonated like bottle rockets, sailing high before falling out of the sky, exploding in full public view.

That's not a just trend, it's golf's version of the swine flu, a full-blown outbreak with alternate sweats and chills, nausea and regurgitation.

Nick Watney's PGA Championship collapse was overshadowed by Dustin Johnson's rules dust-up at Whistling Straits. (Getty Images)  
Nick Watney's PGA Championship collapse was overshadowed by Dustin Johnson's rules dust-up at Whistling Straits. (Getty Images)  
"Is there a common thread?" Baddeley said, repeating the question. "Well, maybe nerves? First time being in that position? Being a young player?"

His is the voice of experience. He went from good to Badds after holding the 54-hole lead at Oakmont in 2007, while playing in the final group alongside a certain cultural whirlwind named Tiger Woods. The popular Aussie butchered the first hole, making a triple bogey, as Angel Cabrera went on to win the National Open. Baddeley shot 80.

"I mean, I felt nervous on the first hole, for sure," Baddeley said, reminiscing about the day. "But I thought I settled down after that. I thought, 'OK, I am still only one shot off the lead.'"

Not for long, as it turned out, and many more have followed in his tracks. At no major has the final-round fold-up been as pronounced as at the U.S. Open, the toughest test in golf. Last year, Dustin Johnson had the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach, coughed up his lunch on the second and third holes, and shot 82. A day earlier, he had signed for a 66.

Johnson, in fact, became the third player to crater with the third-round Open lead since 2005, the event a signature mass meltdown against which everything west of Chernobyl could be measured. At Pinehurst in '05, stoic Retief Goosen held the 54-hole lead and was positioned to win his third Open title. Members in the media had started writing the stories, prematurely singing Goose's praises as a three-time champ, when a not-so-funny thing happened during his coronation walk.

Nearly everybody launched their lunches while navigating Donald Ross' topsy-turvy greens. Incredibly, of the four players who teed off in the final two groups, three failed to break 80, with Jason Gore (84) and Olin Browne (80) joining Goosen for figurative blood transfusions afterward.

Over the past 12 months, Johnson was quickly joined in the painful parade by Nick Watney, who blew the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship last fall with a skidding 81, and April's 21-year-old Masters leader, Rory McIlroy, who unspooled with an 80.

The trio has plenty in common beyond shooting scores that roughly approximated the day's temperature ... all were in their 20s and winners of multiple events ... each hits the ball prodigious distances ... and most notably, none had ever before led a major heading into Sunday. Yes, there's a difference.

"It's hard to put into words the anxiousness, the sleeplessness, the pressure," two-time U.S. Open champ Curtis Strange said. "You have no idea. It's like an out-of-body experience."

It brings to mind one of our favorite phrases -- watching them play was akin to throwing virgins into a volcano. Small wonder they were grand slammed. It all started at the Open last summer at Pebble Beach, a course where Johnson already had amassed two career victories.

"It's definitely a lot different," Johnson said of the majors pressure. "You can say whatever you want. I even had a really good warmup on Sunday when I had a three-shot lead ... then I made triple on No. 2 after driving it right down the middle with a wedge in my hand. You know, it's a funny game."

Not ha-ha funny. Let's make that distinction clear.

U.S. Open 2011
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If Johnson felt like he was ready to rumble, the same could also be said for Watney at Whistling Straits last year. In fact, it took about 10 elevated heartbeats before he deviated from his usual warmup routine and began bouncing off the walls in anticipation. Tour players are creatures of habit, and most have choreographed pre-round regimens.

Watney came anxiously bounding out of the clubhouse much earlier than he ever had before, causing swing coach Butch Harmon to think, "Uh-oh, this isn't good."

"I woke up extra early -- not on purpose, but I just did," Watney said. "Just kind of kept looking at the clock. I wanted to get out there and get on the golf course, but I was the last guy off.

"I thought about winning that morning."


McIlroy was cruising to an apparent wire-to-wire Masters victory when he three-putted the first hole from the fringe on Sunday and chopped up the second hole, too. By then, eventual winner Charl Schwartzel had holed two shots from off the green.

Remarkably, Johnson and Watney led by three at the start of their rounds and McIlroy held a four-stroke edge. It wasn't remotely enough.

"I don't know how Dustin and Nick were feeling whenever they were going into the last round leading, but it's a totally new experience, and I don't know if it's just because we all want it so badly that we sort of change from Saturday night to Sunday in a way," McIlroy said.

Reverse-ageism aside, maybe it could have happened to anyone in that position for the first time.

"I think it's just a little bit of a coincidence that happened to be three young guys," said Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open playing alongside Johnson. "I think winning is difficult. Winning a major championship is even more difficult.

"When you're playing the toughest setups in world golf under the utmost pressure, and like I say, when it starts to get away from you a little bit and you start to chase on hard golf courses like that, it just keeps getting away from you and getting away from you."

Baddeley noted the same thing, at least as it relates to the U.S. Open. There are few places to make up ground, in stark contrast to most weeks on the PGA Tour, where scoring opportunities abound.

Plenty of other players, including Hall of Famers Nick Price and Tom Watson, blew a few before the light came on at the majors, too.

"If you don't learn from it, then you're not paying attention," Jack Nicklaus said. "And if you turn that negative into a positive, of something not to do and you say, OK, I did these and they were wrong, what do I do and how do I do it and what do I concentrate and make myself do and how do I make myself think?'

"Then you learn from that. And I'm sure all those guys are very, very good players and they'll all learn from it."

Easy for him to say. His first and last victories on the PGA Tour were at major championships, and he collected 18 of them in all, plus a couple of U.S. Amateur titles.

"Sometimes you have to hit them over the head twice, but in Watson's case you had to hit him over the head three times," Nicklaus said. "But I think it happens to everybody."

Butterflies in your gut are one thing -- pterodactyls are another. Though plenty of 54-hole leaders have fought through to win despite the presence of training wheels -- first-time major winner Louis Oosthuizen was brilliant on Sunday in claiming the British Open last July -- the only vaccine is experience, apparently.

Johnson might serve as proof. Two months after he caved at Pebble Beach, he was leading the PGA Championship by a shot with one hole remaining in regulation. No need to recap what happened on the 72nd, but Johnson played in the final group that day, too, acquitted himself well and shot 70 even after penalty shots on the last hole were added.

"Dustin got himself into a great position at Whistling Straits after what happened at the U.S. Open, and he was very unfortunate not to win that," McIlroy noted optimistically. "Yeah, I mean, they're huge -- they're major championships and you want to really try and get your first one out of the way and kick on."

Versus being kicked around.

"I think the common thing between all three of us, we probably put ourselves under a lot of pressure on that Sunday to just get it done, and that probably worked against us," McIlroy said.

Acidic stomachs aside, what the trio wouldn't give for another shot at glory from the same position.

"Yeah, it was a foreign feeling," Watney said, "but I would love to have it again."


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