You have to feel sorry for Martin Kaymer. The European Ryder Cup star leads by six after two rounds of the U.S. Open. His 10-under-par total is a tournament record for 36 holes. He’s got bluebirds fluttering around his head and TV analysts fawning over his trim torso and muscular arms. But Kaymer’s situation at Pinehurst is so splendid that it borders on catastrophic. He’s like the man who steps barefoot onto a bed of hot coals, mistaking it for a yellow brick road.
Here’s the thing about giant leads: They’re like over-ripe fruit that’s inedible by the time you get it home from the market. They’re the exploding cigars of gag-gift fame. They’re the e-mails from the Nigerian prince who promises you a share of his billion-dollar inheritance.
Ask Greg Norman. The Shark famously squandered a Sunday-morning lead of six strokes at the 1996 Masters, allowing Nick Faldo to scoot to a five-shot victory. “I am a winner,” Norman insisted afterward. “I just didn’t win today.”
Ask Adam Scott, who enjoyed a four-stroke lead with four holes to play at the 2012 British Open. Better yet, ask Ernie Els, who chatted on his mobile phone outside the clubhouse right up to the moment they handed him the claret jug.
Ask Rory McIlroy, who was four strokes better than the field after three rounds of the 2011 Masters. Or Nick Watney, three ahead on Sunday at the 2010 PGA. Or Dustin Johnson, who read that the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was “his to lose—the dumbest cliche in sports—before teeing off on Sunday with his three-shot advantage. Their final-round scores, if you’re interested: 80, 81 and 82, respectively.
It’s not that leading is bad—it’s definitely good—and leading by a lot is not necessarily a portent of doom. Tiger Woods protected ginormous leads at the 1997 Masters, the 2000 U.S. Open and the 2000 British Open, winning those three gigs by an aggregate of 35 strokes. McIlroy rebounded from his green-jacket-giveaway at the very next major, preserving his Sunday-morning lead of eight strokes on the way to a U.S. Open win at Congressional.
But for every story of a commanding lead leading to victory, there are five instances of colossal chokes. Arnold Palmer—the King!—led the 1966 U.S. Open by seven with nine holes to play. I guess it was Palmer’s to lose, because Arnie had to hole a par putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Billy Casper. The next day, in an 18-hole playoff, Palmer enjoyed a two-shot advantage with eight to play. He lost to Casper by four.
Not ugly enough for you? Patty Sheehan, a certified Hall of Famer, led the field by nine and Betsy King by 11 early in the third round of the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Make that “eventual winner” Betsy King, because Sheehan started hitting her irons fat and played her last 33 holes in nine over par. “It hurts, it hurts a lot,” Sheehan said afterward, crying on national TV.
Why are big leads such a burden? Conventional wisdom has it that the leader sniffs victory prematurely and starts playing conservatively. “I’ll win if I par in,” he tells himself, listening to that calmly persuasive inner voice that helped him negotiate his last house purchase. Three holes later, having missed three straight greens on the wide side, he contemplates using the putter from a hundred yards out.
But that’s not it. It’s fear that undermines the front-runner. “If I blow a lead this big, I’ll be branded for life,” he tells himself, prodded by the snide, hissy insinuations of his lizard brain. It’s a reasonable fear, because minutes after some future hotshot takes a 10-shot lead at the Travelers Insurance Open, some nitwit reporter will bang out a column recalling Greg’s choke, Arnie’s collapse, Patty’s self-immolation, and—this is not a prediction, just a hypothetical—Martin Kaymer’s tragic flameout at the 2014 U.S. Open.
So if you bump into Kaymer in Pinehurst Village in the next day or two, don’t thump him on the back or flash him the “V for Victory” sign. Just give him a sympathetic nod, mutter something soothing and move on.
He’ll thank you for it later.