Final-round pressure is the ultimate choking hazard

Updated: June 10, 2007, 11:47 PM ET
By Jaime Diaz | Golf Digest

"Put that coffee down! Coffee's for closers only!"

So begins Alec Baldwin -- as the slickly superior corporate boss Blake -- in a brutally calculating humiliation of a group of beaten-down real-estate salesmen in the film of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." When two Willy Loman types scoff, Blake explodes with a torrent of abuse that concludes in a coarse crescendo: "You can't close s -- -, you are s -- -. Hit the bricks, pal, and beat it, 'cause you are going out!"

Ouch. Then again, it was only a slightly dramatized version of professional sports. Closing, the moment of truth, getting it done, manning up, gut check and finishing are all variations of the blunt and unforgiving jargon athletes in the most demanding arenas use to describe the response that defines the difference between who wins and who loses, who is remembered and who is forgotten, who relishes and who regrets. Being a closer is the intangible quality every aspiring champion most desire; it's the hunger that drove a young Tom Watson, in the midst of his classic duel with Jack Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, to ask the older champion with Pattonesque wonder, "This is what it's all about, isn't it?"

Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Morry GashVisions of Van de Velde: Mickelson's double-bogey 6 on the 18th at Winged Foot will forever be remembered in U.S. Open lore.
Winged Foot. Of the five players near the lead at the end -- Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie, Geoff Ogilvy and Phil Mickelson -- only the winner, Ogilvy, was able to par the 72nd hole. And the two who could've gotten into a playoff with a bogey made double.

Although stunning in its wreckage, Winged Foot was less the exception than the rule. Statistically, the final stages of a golf tournament -- particularly a major championship, and especially the U.S. Open -- are more about failure than success. Since 1980, when the PGA Tour began keeping track, players who held or shared the lead entering the final round have won more than 40 percent of the time. In the first three months of this year's PGA Tour, critical gaffes by last-round leaders -- Charles Howell III at Sony, Justin Rose at the Hope, Jeff Quinney at FBR, Mickelson at Riviera, Boo Weekley at Honda and Heath Slocum at PODS -- led to demoralizing defeats. At the Masters, Stuart Appleby couldn't hold on, shooting 75 to slip into a tie for seventh. And in the LPGA's first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, 54-hole co-leaders Se Ri Pak and Suzann Pettersen collapsed in the final holes to hand the trophy to early finisher Morgan Pressel.

The seeming ease with which Tiger Woods closes tournaments has created a false impression. Woods' record of winning 40 of the 43 times he has carried the lead into the final round (93 percent) is one of the most eloquent measures of his greatness. Although records before 1960 are sketchy -- precluding precise counts for such giants as Hogan, Snead and Nelson -- it appears that no other important player is even close to Woods' level. Nicklaus converted 38 of 63 times (60 percent). Johnny Miller, who infuriates players with suggestions of choking, closed 14 of 19 times (74 percent). Phil Mickelson is an impressive 16 of 23 (70 percent, counting his success at Pebble and failure at Riviera this year). Conversely, Greg Norman, who lost a six-stroke final-round lead in the 1996 Masters, was only eight of 23 (35 percent).

Surprisingly, the rate of converting final-round leads into victories is slightly higher in majors, lending credence to Nicklaus' belief that for a top player, majors are the easiest to win, given that many players aren't convinced that they're capable of handling the situation. Since 1980 the winning rate among 54-hole leaders at majors is 43 percent, but it's bolstered by Woods' 12-for-12. Take out the championships Woods has won, and the rate of victory drops to a more mortal 38 percent.

The U.S. Open is by a wide margin the most difficult of the four majors in which to sustain a lead. In the 27 championships starting with Nicklaus' fourth Open victory, only 12 of the 35 players who held or shared the 54-hole lead went on to win. At Winged Foot, third-round co-leader Kenneth Ferrie came home in 76 to join a group over the years who found the finish to be too much, including Marty Fleckman (80) in 1967, Miller Barber (78) in 1969, Tom Watson (79) in 1974, Frank Beard (78) in 1975, Hale Irwin (79) in 1984, T.C. Chen (77) in 1985, Gil Morgan (81) in 1992 and Retief Goosen (81) in 2005. "There was a hole in my parachute," said Morgan, speaking for the free-fallers.

When it comes to successful closers, there's little gloating about lifetime percentages. Quite the opposite. "Oh, I'm the worst," said Mark Calcavecchia, whose 26 career runner-up finishes against 13 victories obscure the fact that he's an exceptional 8-for-11 when leading going into the last round. "I mean, sometimes I've been unbelievable, but most times I'm awful. I'm just not mentally strong enough. I get panicky. But that's the way most of us are. It's kind of normal to blow it at the end of a tournament, because golf is just that tough. No one else is like Tiger. No one has ever been like him."

Among his peers, Woods receives more respect for his record as a finisher than for all his other feats combined. "I don't think anyone in the history of the game -- probably in the history of sport -- has closed out like Tiger Woods," Brad Faxon said. "What's so amazing is that late in a tournament with a lead is when he looks the most comfortable. He's so much better at it than anyone else, it's ridiculous."

It's not just golfers who think so.

"The mental aspect is what separates golf from the rest of the sports world, and that's why there's no doubt Tiger is the most admired person among other athletes," said NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett, a low-handicapper in golf. "When I've been around [Michael] Jordan and [Wayne] Gretzky and guys who were the greatest in their sport, the guy everyone ends up talking about is Tiger. At that level, physical ability is a given, but the thing they respect most is the ability to get there mentally when it matters most. That's what puts someone above the rest. And Tiger does that -- in the hardest mental sport -- like no one else."

Does it follow that golf is the hardest sport in which to close?

Most tour pros are huge sports fans who grew up competing in other sports. They're students of the iconic closers: Jordan, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant; Joe Montana, John Elway and Tom Brady; Pete Sampras and Chris Evert. Golfers concede that the classic demands on endurance, strength and speed are lesser in their sport. But on the question of which sport offers the greatest challenge at winning time, the answer among tour players is golf.

Most of those interviewed guessed that tennis might be as psychologically challenging as golf, but Jim Courier, the winner of four Grand Slam titles, doesn't think so. "If you lose in tennis, it's easier to tell yourself the other player was better that day," he said. "You have an out. In golf you have opponents, but they don't touch your ball. You're totally responsible, so there's more disappointment, and the suffering is much worse. You don't have an out."

NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, who is nicknamed Mr. Clutch and is a low-handicap golfer, said golf is the toughest sport mentally. "It's not even close, because it's the ultimate battle within a battle, and especially at the end when the pressure is highest," West said. "In basketball, you know how you can beat the player who's guarding you, and you know your teammates can help you. In golf, there are so many different kinds of shots, but no one can help you, so it's more tense. To me, Tiger Woods is the most remarkable athlete I've ever seen. His courage under pressure is off the charts."

A failure to close tends to cause the most suffering. According to sport psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante, what's needed is the right perspective on what Nicklaus referred to as "so-called failure."

"All great closers eventually realize that failures are part of learning," Valiante said. "It's what frees a player to go for it on Sunday." According to Valiante, "the natural design of the brain does not necessarily lend itself to great golf under pressure." The normal response to stress produces chemicals that flood the regions of the brain that affect the fine motor skills so crucial to the golf swing and putting. It causes muscles to tighten, typically resulting in shots lost to the right and putts that fall short. "The psychological triggers the physiological," he says.

Although certain predispositions--calmness, for instance--seem to lend themselves to an ability to close, nervousness doesn't always preclude a clutch performance.

Tim Daggett remembers that in the moments before performing on the high bar in the final event of the men's gymnastics team competition at the 1984 Olympics, "I never felt worse in my life," he said. "Mentally, physically, everything. But the moment my hands touched the bar, I don't know why, but I absolutely knew I was going to do the best routine of my life." Daggett's ensuing 10, won the gold medal for the U.S.

"It's what people say to themselves at those moments that makes the difference," Daggett said. "There can't be any doubt. I've seen some of the greatest physical athletes not perform at the critical moment. Something goes through their brain that says, Oh, no. I'm sure in the golf swing, in that moment right before hitting the ball, if you go, Oh, no, it's over."

Valiante finds that such oh, no moments afflict non-closers because they're playing for the wrong reasons.

"If you're basing your confidence on what other people are going to think of you, or how you're going to appear--it's a recipe for choking," he said. "Attaching your status and your self-worth to a shot in golf creates the type of fear that paralyzes. So we go into ego-avoid mode, which is the mental equivalent of prevent defense. Rather than hitting shots at a target, you're hitting shots to avoid embarrassment."

Valiante specializes in undoing such behavior.

"Tour players and even good college golfers by and large are not in the position to close very often," Valiante said. "To condition something, you need repeated exposure. And golf just doesn't provide enough repeated exposure. At the rate most golfers get in the hunt, it takes five, six, seven years to get comfortable."

For that same reason, Woods agrees.

"It's hard for the new guys coming up to gain the experience of winning or contending out here because the fields are so deep," he said after closing at Doral. "In past years, if you got up there and fell on your face, you had a better chance of getting back up the next week. That's harder to do now.

"What it boils down to is experience. I've been doing it awhile, all through junior golf, and I always call on those experiences when they apply to the situation. As Jack always said, winning breeds winning. You learn to do it in so many different ways. Each time, you better understand the emotional state that you have to be in to get the job done."

Asked if it's his biggest edge over the competition, Woods paused and answered, "Probably."

The zen of Woods is not an extra gear on Sunday but attention to every shot. "I don't turn it on and off," he said. "It's the same focus all the time, five hours a round, every round."

Ironically, that's the same message that Alec Baldwin's character, as intolerant of human frailty as the sports public is of "soft" athletes, bellows at his salesmen.

"A-B-C," he says, grinding chalk into a blackboard. "A: always; B: be; C: closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!"

That's what it's all about.

Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine