5. Jason Dufner 2011 PGA Championship
Jason Dufner had a tremendous year in 2012, turning in one of the most consistent seasons of anyone on the tour, notching his first two PGA tour victories, and contending for major championships. He finished the year ranked in the top ten of the World Golf Rankings, and he performed very well for team USA in the 2012 Ryder Cup.
His great year was almost enough to make everyone forget about his epic collapse at the 2011 PGA Championship.
Dufner, who at this point was a virtual unknown and had zero career victories, was leading a major championship by five strokes with four holes to go. Dufner wilted under the pressure, however, bogeying the next three holes. He made a difficult putt on hole 18 to save par and force a playoff with rookie Keegan Bradley.
In the playoff, Dufner again was presented with an excellent opportunity to prolong the match and put himself in position to win, but he botched an easy five-foot putt on the first of the playoff holes, essentially handing the victory to Bradley.
Fortunately, this story ends in redemption as Dufner was able to follow through on his vow to “not let this define my career”. His excellent showing in 2012 has not made anyone forget his meltdown in 2011, but it has made it seem like a distant memory.
4. Jean Van de Velde, 1999 British Open
Sometimes you only get one shot at the spotlight, and it is unfortunate when you fall flat on your face in that one opportunity. Jean Van de Velde was a journeyman Euro Tour player, but he was thrust into the limelight with a brilliant performance at the 1999 British Open. Well, it was brilliant four 71/72th of the British Open.
His great play had earned him a three shot lead heading into the 18th hole on Sunday. All he needed to do was double-bogey and the tournament was his. Instead, he made some terrible shots and some even worse decisions and spoiled his one and only chance at golf immortality.
He had a poor drive, and then instead of laying up and playing it safe, he recklessly went for the green and ended up in the deep rough. Again, having the chance to play it safe, he went for gusto instead, and the ball ended up in the drink. He took a stroke penalty and then hit the ball into the bunker. By this point he was on life-support, but he managed to get up-and-down to score a triple-bogey and force a playoff. No doubt fazed by his epic collapse, Van de Velde promptly lost the playoff.
He would never get anywhere near major contention again in his career.
For years, Phil Mickelson carried a huge gorilla on his back. Though he was one of the finest golfers in the world, he was unable to win a major. That all changed at the 2004 Masters, and then he won the 2005 PGA Championship and opened the 2006 major season with another Masters victory.
And it looked like he was going to do it, as he carried the lead into the final hole, and needed a par to complete the victory or, at worst (it seemed), a bogey to force a playoff.
Instead, he took a page out of the Van de Velde guide to last-hole tragedy, and tried to win with an exclamation point rather than by playing it safe. Attempting to approach the green on his drive, he instead hit a crowded hospitality tent amidst a cluster of trees. But the bounce was very lucky, and actually had a decent lie. A short pitch out to the fairway would put him in a solid position to save par and win the tournament. In one of the most mind-numbing mental blunders in golf history, Mickelson refused to take that route, and instead went for the green.
He didn’t hit the green. He hit a tree. When he tried again, he hit it into the sand.
He ended up with a double bogey and a third place finish.
2. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters
In 1996, Greg Norman was the top ranked golfer in the world, and he came to Augusta looking for the elusive Masters Championship that had eluded him during his prolific career. He came out blazing on Thursday, notching a course record 63 and vaulting to the top of leaderboard. He would not relinquish the lead on Friday, and after another impressive performance on Saturday, he was six strokes up with only one day to play. Nobody had ever blown that big of a lead at the Masters. But nobody knew how to cave under pressure like Greg Norman.
Norman was one of the best golfers of all time, having spent a massive 331 weeks combined atop the World Golf Rankings Standings during the 1980s and 1990s. But he is widely regarded as a bit of a disappointment, primarily because he only won two majors during his lengthy career. His failures in the major tournaments were characterized by agonizingly close calls where bad luck, bad timing and personal choke jobs all conspired against “The Shark”, often at the same time.
The 1996 Masters epitomizes these failures. On the final day of competition, Norman made it through the first eight holes without catastrophe, but then he bogeyed holes 9, 10 and 11 and followed that up by splashing his tee shot on 12 into the water, resulting in a double bogey that cost him the lead. He had a few opportunities to get back in contention, but on hole 16 his tee shot again found the drink and his failure was complete. He finished the day with a 78, and Nick Faldo won the Masters by five strokes. A simple 72 would have won him the green jacket, but instead it was another epic failure for Australia’s best golfer.
1. Arnold Palmer, 1966 US Open
If blowing a six stroke lead at the final day of a major tournament is an epic collapse, then what do you call blowing a SEVEN shot lead on the BACK NINE of the final day of a major championship? Words perhaps do not do justice for what happened to Arnold Palmer at the 1966 U.S. Open. All one can say is that it was a collapse for the ages from one of the greatest performers the sport has ever seen.
With nine holes to play Palmer was 7 strokes up on Billy Casper. He strolled around the course with the genial smile that had made him golf’s first true superstar, interacting with the crowd and telling folks that he was going for the course record held by Ben Hogan, by now an old-timer who had never gotten along with the younger, more popular Palmer.
While Palmer was busy chasing the record and awaiting his coronation, something happened. The first was that Casper started playing great. The second was that Palmer started slipping. But he still seemed to have the tournament wrapped up. He led by five strokes with only four to play.
But he bogeyed 15, and Casper birdied. Same thing on 16. The lead was down to one with two holes to play and the generally calm and charismatic Palmer’s face was awash with tension. When on 17, he had a seven foot putt to retain the lead, the pressure was too much for Palmer to bear and he came up a few inches short. His lead was gone.
On 18, Palmer somehow managed to save par and force a playoff, which back then was a full 18 holes the following day. Palmer came out and took the lead from Casper, up two with nine holes to go. But for the second day in a row, he melted down and Casper went on to win by four strokes.
Palmer would call it the biggest disappointment of his career.
He would never win another major.
By Scott McCormick
Scott McCormick feels fortunate that when he chokes on the golf course, there are no cameras recording it for posterity. His golf writing appears courtesy of Golf Now Phoenix and Golf Now San Diego. For more of McCormick’s commentary, see his recent post on the Belly Putter controversy.