Last August, Steve Allan was cruising toward his first PGA Tour victory, at the Reno-Tahoe Open at Montreux Golf and Country Club. The 31-year-old Australian–nicknamed "the babyfaced Assassin"–had a two-stroke cushion as he approached the 429-yard par-4 18th. His 335-yard drive found the short grass, and he could have taken four strokes to coax his ball the final 94 yards. Just 94 yards to glory, a $540,000 check and a two-year Tour exemption.
Then an odd thing happened: Allan's brain went on holiday. He thought about the wind, the manifold ways to muck up 94 yards, and hey, check out the cameraman! He took a tentative swipe and chunked his approach shot into the front bunker. From there, he says, "I didn't ever settle down." He wasn't kidding. He bladed his sand shot 10 yards over the green. Faced with a tough fourth, he managed to regroup and chip to five feet, but then quick-hit what would have been the winning putt. The gallery groaned, and Allan tapped out for a double-bogey 6.
Rookie Vaughn Taylor birdied 18 to force a sudden-death playoff with Allan and two others, then birdied the first hole, also 18, to win. Allan still had a six-footer left for par, a moot putt. It was over. He skulked back to his rented house and flipped on the Golf Channel, which was replaying the horrifying finish of Australia's latest hard-luck golfer.
Every tournament is lost a thousand times and won once, whether the Open in question is the U.S. or the Reno-Tahoe. While it may be unpleasant, choking is the next best thing to winning. "You learn more from your mistakes than you do from your good stuff," Robert Allenby says, which of course makes Allan the 2004 class valedictorian.
The comedian Dennis Miller once joked, "You can now get AIDS just by hoping you don't get it." But that's also true of choking, a fact that was explained by economic theorists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, who found that the pain of loss is more likely to influence behavior than the joy of gain. "Loss-aversion" is why sitting on a lead can be harder than playing from behind—in other words, why we choke.
"If you play out here long enough it's going to happen," says Tiger Woods, who shot a nervous, final-round 72 to blow a Sunday lead to Ed Fiori at the 1996 Quad City Classic. "I'm lucky it happened to me early in my career."
Woods is hardly the only living example of the galvanizing effect of a dramatic, come-from-ahead loss. After eagling the eighth hole in the final round of the 2001 International, which uses the modified Stableford scoring system, Chris DiMarco had 41 points and a six-point lead over Tom Pernice, Jr. Then DiMarco cratered, making two double-bogeys (-3 points apiece) and three bogeys (-1) in eight holes to hand the trophy to Pernice. "I gagged," says DiMarco. "It happens, but you've got to admit it, or you won't get any better. It was actually a good thing because it lit a fire under my ass." Fueled by his failure, DiMarco won twice in his next 11 starts.
The positive effects of The Choke manifest themselves in different ways. DiMarco got angry and worked harder. Others find it affirming to survive golf's most gruesome ending—what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. A few players glean insight from how they handled, or mishandled, stress. Others tweak their swings to hold up under pressure. Billy Mayfair says he learned not to look at scoreboards after he bogeyed the 15th, 16th and 18th holes at the 1995 World Series of Golf and lost to Greg Norman on the first hole of sudden death. Mayfair won the Tour Championship two months later.
Jerry Kelly took a similar lesson, and more, from the 2001 Reno-Tahoe Open, where he led by two strokes with three holes remaining. After missing long and left on the 16th green, he faced a downhill lie in fluffy rough. He opened the face of his sand wedge and slid the clubface completely under the ball, barely moving it. Twice. He finally hit the green and two-putted for a triple-bogey 7. He finished second by a stroke. "I learned from it instead of letting it kill me," Kelly says. "I changed the way I hit flop shots. That first giveaway is the harshest feeling in golf. You're right there—you can feel it, you can taste it. But it teaches you not to feel it or taste it." Eight starts later, Kelly won the Sony Open.
Allan didn't want to relive his double-bogey debacle right after it happened, but when he clicked on the TV, "I figured I might as well look and see if I can spot anything." He knew he could close. He'd won the 2002 Australian Open and 1998 German Open. The nearest he'd come to winning on the PGA Tour was in Milwaukee in 2003, where he was three strokes ahead with four holes to go but made one bogey and got passed by a surging Kenny Perry.
As Allan watched himself go bust in Reno, he remembered how he failed to get set over his approach shot. "I saw all the distractions—the cameramen, everything. I just never got comfortable." He was also "physically and mentally too quick" over his bogey putt. The lessons? Commit and swing, stay focused in sudden death, and take time off after a tough loss. He played horribly in two straight starts immediately after Reno, then took a week off.
Back home in Scottsdale, he slept in, cleaned the house and watched Australian-rules football. He also allowed himself to process what had happened. "I've had sessions with psychologists," Allan says. "They've got good things to say, but you've got to work on it yourself."
Allan's peers are pulling for him, largely because they know the same thing could happen to them, if it hasn't already. "I watched it on TV," Loren Roberts remembers. "It was painful." But then so was Roberts's final-round 78 at the Buick Classic earlier in 2004. Sitting on a two-stroke lead at the start of the day, Roberts three-putted the second hole, four-putted the third and was toast by the turn. An eight-time Tour winner, Roberts attributed it to a day of bad putting and moved on. No big deal.
That's how the big boys roll: Learn. Move on. Woods gave himself the benefit of the doubt after the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic, where he blocked his drive on the 72nd hole, rinsed his third shot in a lake and made double bogey to lose to Thomas Bjorn. News accounts called it a choke. Woods disagreed. "That 18th hole is the hardest driving hole on the course," he says, "and a 3-wood wasn't enough with the wind blowing." Fair enough. A month later Woods won the Masters to complete the Tiger Slam.
Every muff has its mitigating circumstances. For Allan it was the gusting wind at Montreux that made his 94-yard shot over sand harder than it looked. Still, it's cold comfort. "I should have won," Allan says. "I'd played really good in tough conditions until the last hole. It was a choke. I never felt like, oh, my gosh, what am I doing here? But I think I hit the shot too quickly. I'd like to think that next time I won't hit that shot until I'm comfortable. I'd like to think I'll learn from it."