Steve Eubanks: Learning to win is one tough lesson

Nowhere is the pain of losing more evident than on a golf course, says Steve Eubanks.

Eubanks: Learning to win is one tough lesson

From Jim Furyk last week to Adam Scott at Royal Lytham, there have been a lot of high-profile collapses this year. Why is that? Says Steve Eubanks, not even the players can explain it.

By Steve Eubanks,

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- It is an evil that goes by many names: taking the gas, spitting the bit, faltering, folding, and, of course, the dreaded choke.   

No matter what you call it, collapsing down the stretch is one of the more painful elements of sports. Whether it’s the Red Sox, who spent the better part of a century finding ways to lose, or the Buffalo Bills repeatedly making it to the big one only to blow it in the end, few things crush the spirit of a sportsman like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  

Nowhere is the pain more evident than on a golf course where an athlete’s failings are slow, meticulous, and laid bare to the world. 

“No game exposes you like golf,” said Wake Forest men’s golf coach Jerry Haas, brother of Jay and uncle to Bill. “In basketball, you can get burned on defense and there might be a seven-foot center behind you to block the shot. If you then get the ball on the fast break for a layup, you look like a hero even though you were just burned on the other end. In golf, you don’t have that seven-footer back there. Nobody has your back. No matter what happens, it’s all on you.”  

Failure to close in golf has never been more evident or prevalent. This year we’ve seen Jim Furyk’s final-hole meltdown at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the slow-motion train wreck that was Adam Scott at the Open Championship, Tiger Woods and Furyk on the weekend at the U.S. Open, Kevin Na’s final-round 76 at the Players Championship, Ernie Els’ shaky finish at the Transitions, Jason Dufner’s triple bogey at Colonial, and Kyle Stanley’s giveaway at Torrey Pines. 

They all blew it. And they had nowhere to hide afterward.  

Until you’ve made that walk, you cannot imagine what a player feels as he tries to protect a lead down the stretch. But with one major championship to go, those who have been there understand the enormity of the finish. And they have nothing but compassion for those who have failed in recent attempts.  

“Coming down the stretch, it is your tournament to win if you have a lead, but it’s also your tournament to lose,” said Rory McIlroy, who lost badly in the 2011 Masters after holding the lead through 63 holes. “Obviously you want to approach it the first way, to go out and say, ‘This is my tournament. I’m in front, I’m going to stamp my authority here, and I’m going to go ahead and win.’ But it’s hard. It’s hard to win. It’s hard to hold onto leads.”  

And the bigger the lead, the more difficult it is to hold.  

“A lot of times I’ve had the lead from day one or going into Sunday,” Els said. “Some of them have been one-shot leads, and some of them have been four-, five-,  six-, even up to eight-shot leads. It’s those big leads that are more nerve-wracking. With a one-shot lead, on paper it’s a lead, but it’s really not a lead because after one hole, one guy can birdie you lose your lead. But when it’s a five- or six-shot lead, you feel the pressure because if you lose now, you’ve given it up. 

“That’s a different taste that’s left in your mouth.”  

No one can put their finger on why there have been so many high-profile collapses this year, but players are noticing. 

“I don’t know why it’s happened particularly this year,” Tiger Woods said. “It’s not just in majors, but it’s happened on regular Tour stops for some reason. Guys have lost leads for some reason this year more so than in the past.”  

Maybe for some it’s the newness of seeing their names on top of the leaderboards. For others, it might be the sense that time is running out. Stanley lost a lead in California but won the following week in Phoenix. Els failed to convert a four-footer in Florida but shot 32 on the final nine at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to win. 

No one counts Jim Furyk out on a difficult track like the Ocean Course, and Adam Scott continues to strike the ball better than at any time in his career.  

“I played spectacular golf for such a long period of time in a major championship,” Scott said in his pre-PGA Championship interview. “That’s something I’ve been working to do for my whole career and finally that’s happened. I’ve got to take the positive that I’m getting somewhere now. I feel great about that, and I feel very motivated to do that again.”  

“(Losing a lead) is a bit of a shock to the system,” McIlroy said. “A little bit like me at the Masters; I felt completely in control over the first three days, stepped onto the first tee box on Sunday and didn’t feel in control. I was like, wow, this feels a bit different.”  

McIlroy understood that feeling, embraced it, and came back to win his next major in record fashion, just as Jason Dufner blew a three-shot lead in last year’s PGA Championship, absorbed it, and came back to have a two-win, career-defining season.  

“We’ve had some great closers in the past in Mickelson and Woods – I’m talking about my generation of players,” Els said. “But I think guys are maybe learning how to win still.” 

Then, with a hint of sadness in eyes, Els said, “It’s a cruel way of learning. But they are, basically, learning.”