By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press
GULLANE, Scotland — Paul Azinger leaned against the railing around the 18th green at Muirfield, where 13 players have won the silver claret jug since the British Open first came to a links course known as the fairest of them all.
It sure didn’t feel that way to Azinger.
Muirfield is where Nick Faldo won his first major championship by making 18 pars in the final round in 1987. It would not have been good enough if only Azinger’s tee shot had not run into a bunker on the par-5 17th or his approach to the 18th had not found that bunker left of the green.
He made bogey on both holes. A one-shot lead became a one-shot loss.
“It could have scarred me,” Azinger said. “But I didn’t recognize the magnitude of what I was losing as much as I knew I could make history if I had won. And I didn’t know 20 years later I was still going to be asked about it.”
The topic this summer evening: As much as majors are won, how many more of them are lost?
Five years later, Faldo won again at Muirfield when John Cook missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the 17th and made bogey on the 18th to finish one-shot behind.
Faldo won the Masters three times, each time with plenty of help. Scott Hoch missed a 3 1/2-foot putt for the win in 1989, and Faldo beat him on the next hole. A year later, Faldo won another green jacket when Raymond Floyd hit into the water on No. 11 in a playoff. And who can forget Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead against Faldo in 1996, still the greatest final-round collapse in a major.
It takes something colossal for the runner-up to be remembered as much as the champion, but it happens. A lot.
The most famous was Jean Van de Velde losing a three-shot lead on the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999, the memory more vivid because the Frenchman rolled up his pants and stood in Barry Burn as he debated whether to play a ball submerged in the rising tide. Sam Snead thought he needed birdie to win the 1939 U.S. Open and chopped his way to a triple bogey, missing a playoff by two shots. He never won the U.S. Open.
Look back only one year ago to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where Adam Scott had a four-shot lead as he stood on the 15th tee. Four bogeys later, Scott watched Ernie Els pose with the claret jug. Did Els win? Or did Scott lose?
“I think 100 percent of them are won,” Azinger said.
That much is certain because the low score always wins in golf, provided the scorecard is correct (see Roberto De Vicenzo at Augusta National in 1968).
“But,” Azinger continued, “I believe that a high percentage of them are handed to the winner.”
Ben Curtis walked off the 18th green as Azinger was speaking. Curtis won the Open at Royal St. George’s in 2003 after Thomas Bjorn took three shots to get out of the bunker on the 16th hole of the final round. Was his Open won or lost?
“It was won,” Curtis said. “When I signed my card, it was over 72 holes. Not 71.”
Curtis had finished his final round about an hour before the tournament was officially over. Els was standing by the putting green last year at Lytham.
Webb Simpson was in the clubhouse at Olympic Club last year when he won the U.S. Open. So was Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 at Winged Foot after a great par save that he figured was for second place in the U.S. Open. That was before Colin Montgomerie chunked a 7-iron from the fairway and made double bogey, and Phil Mickelson hit three poor shots in a row and also made double bogey.
Ogilvy takes no offense to the notion that his first major was as much a product of others losing it than him winning it.
“Definitely, the low score wins,” he said. “At Winged Foot ... that was lost by multiple players. It’s the guy who’s still there at the end. Faldo was the master of it. He often won them by not doing anything wrong. He never did anything wrong on the last nine holes, did he? That’s how you win. Nicklaus won them like that. He just played, and everyone else, the difficulty of the course caught up with them. It never caught up with Jack, or Faldo. And Tiger is like that, too. He plays, and gradually people fall back.”
Woods is unique in that he never needed a serious blunder to win any of his 14 majors.
But he understands why it happens.
“I think it’s very simple,” Woods said. “There’s a lot of pressure in major championships, and you’re also playing under the most difficult conditions. You combine the strength of field with the most difficult conditions and with the most heightened pressure, you’re going to get guys making mistakes.
“I don’t know if I can give you a percentage on how it goes,” he said when asked whether more majors were won than lost. “But we’ve seen throughout the years where guys have played well and executed on the back nine and have gone on to win, and where guys have had leads and made a bunch of mistakes and have thrown it away. And that’s the neat thing about major championships. It can happen. You just don’t know until the back nine on Sunday.”
Angel Cabrera won the 2009 Masters in a playoff after Kenny Perry bogeyed the last two holes. Keegan Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship in a playoff when Jason Dufner lost a five-shot lead with four holes to play.
Did they win? Or did they win because someone lost?
“At the end of the day, who’s holding the trophy?” Curtis said. “Golf is a crazy game. And crazy stuff happens.”