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Tour 54-hole leaders have been right where field wants 'em

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Co-leader through 54, Tiger Woods wound up a T3 outsider as Robert Rock won in Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images)  
Co-leader through 54, Tiger Woods wound up a T3 outsider as Robert Rock won in Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images)  

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- He carved balls out of the hardscrabble desert dirt, extricated prickly cacti pieces from his shirt and pants, and was nervously smoking so many cigarettes, he was using the butt of one to fire up the next.

But by the end of the final round of the Phoenix Open, Spencer Levin had joined a list of luminaries who had matched an ignominious record for largest wasted lead in PGA Tour history.

Luminous, as in blown up.

Levin, seeking his first tour win last week, began the final-round march with a six-stroke lead and was summarily torched, shooting 75 to finish third. He became the sixth player in tour annals to waste a six-shot lead after three rounds, joining the likes of Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia and Hal Sutton.

Levin already had the cigarette. All he needed was the blindfold. Of late, it feels like Sundays have become a parade of dead men walking. Levin's header came seven days after Kyle Stanley, also seeking his maiden tour victory, bungled a five-stroke lead entering the final round at Torrey Pines. The pair could get a bulk rate on Pepto-Bismol, and the way it's going, they might want to pass the bottle around.

In an ever-deepening talent pool, with players facing heightened public and media scrutiny, finding closure in big events has never been harder.

"One, it's hard to win," Tiger Woods said Tuesday. "I think that's what people don't realize."

Consider us reminded.

Leading a tour event is an exercise that transcends physical execution. Being chased is an entirely different experience that can cause brainstem overload.

"The hardest thing is when it starts to slip and your mind starts running amok," laughed Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner.

Forget the 24-hour flu. The 54-hole bug has even affected Woods, whose trademark red shirt Sunday seemed to be made of Teflon, if not Kevlar, as it related to sealing the final-round deal. Woods has wobbled badly trying to get to the Sunday clubhouse over past three seasons, starting with the 2009 PGA Championship, when he was outdueled by Y.E. Yang and blew a 54-hole lead at a major for the first time in 15 tries. Overall, Woods has blown three of his past five third-round leads in sanctioned global events.

Harrington related the story of how he once blew a two-stroke lead with three holes to play as an 18-year-old at the Irish Youth event, when he relaxed and bogeyed the last three holes coming in.

"I cried," he said. "That's how bad it was."

There's been a lot of cringing lately.

In his 2012 debut in Abu Dhabi, Woods was tied with unheralded Robert Rock, who had one European Tour win to his record. Woods, mind you, had a global record of 55-8 when holding at least a share of the lead entering the final round. Most of the time, experience trumps all. But Woods was shaky all day, shot 72 and lost by two shots, finishing third.

It's one of the rare instances where the actions of one player, the guy in the pole position, can dictate the final-day vibe for an entire field.

"Being a front runner, everyone's kind of chasing you," Woods said. "You're in a position where if you do make a few mistakes, it's all right, because obviously, you have shots to play with.

"But if you get off to a poor start early, you can still rectify it, but you send momentum down the field."

The fields never have been better, which means more vultures than ever are waiting to swoop at the first sign of blood.

This season, players holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead have converted two of five opportunities into wins, which technically isn't far off the 2011 average. Last year, the 54-hole leader won 22 times in 43 events, a number that does not factor in players who were tied for the lead after three rounds and failed to win. So the casualty rate is actually a shade higher than 50 percent.

It's a position where alpha males tend to shine. Is there such a thing as an omega male?

"I think for me, personally, I've always been excited about being in that position," Woods said. "One, I know I've played well to get there, so I'm trying to do the same things I did to get there, and hopefully it will be enough."

The mental difference between being prey and pursuer cannot possibly be described, Harrington said. As evidence, look no farther than Stanley -- seven days after he blew a four-stroke lead on the 72nd hole at Torrey, he came from eight shots back Sunday to win in Phoenix.

"I think playing from behind was quite a bit easier," Stanley said moments after winning. "I think when you have a big lead, it's human nature to want to protect it. I think it's a little easier kind of being on the chasing side."

Of course, as part of a pack, nobody much notices if you fade away.

Woods can still vividly recall the first time he held the 54-hole lead, as a rookie trying to secure his tour status, at Quad Cities. He got reeled in by Ed Fiori, a tour journeyman with a funny grip. Unlike Woods, he never let go.

"Unfortunately, I didn't win, but I learned from it," Woods said. "I was surprised what Ed was doing in the final group. It was just different. So that was a good learning experience for me.

"I think that, overall, that really helped me. If I didn't go through that experience, just like what Kyle went through at Torrey, he probably doesn't come back and win. What that allowed me to do is understand and feel the heat at this level."

Within weeks, Woods won at Las Vegas and Disney World, and then he ran away with the Masters title the following spring. His reputation as the Mariano Rivera of golf was soon born.

"So that helped a lot going, through that one tournament," Woods reminisced. "It showed me that one, I could get there, and two, where I needed to improve."

Broadly speaking, Woods has golfing gifts that no other player possesses. For the mortals, it can take months or years before a player gets a chance to climb back aboard the bucking 54-hole bronco -- Stanley's memorable one-week turnaround notwithstanding.

"The only way you are going to learn is when you put yourself in that position," Harrington said.

That position, meaning upright, not prone. Levin said he woke up after midnight Sunday, and his mind started racing.

"Basically, I wanted the day to be over with at 2 a.m.," he said.

Levin admitted that "weird thoughts" started caroming around his head when the day began to slip away. After shredding the course for three days, the natural inclination is to start playing defense.

"I just didn't feel the same on Sunday," he said, "simple as that."

Simplicity isn't a term often used to describe the exercise. For a player like Levin, who had never before held a 54-hole lead, opportunity knocks only so often. As Harrington pointed out, for players on the deeper American tour, there are not as many chances to prove your mettle as a frontrunner on Sundays -- win or lose.

"Winning is a habit," Harrington said. "But losing is where you learn."

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