Hate to Be Rude: The difficulty of closing on Tour

After a heartbreaking loss at Torrey Pines (left), Kyle Stanley bounced back the following week to win at Phoenix.

After a heartbreaking loss at Torrey Pines (left), Kyle Stanley bounced back the following week to win at Phoenix.

Golf’s last fortnight has been about large leads blown on Sunday and, if your glass is half full, unlikely comebacks. In this period of deeper fields and talented young players learning their way, no lead seems safe anymore.

The red shirt on Sunday in golf is dead. It has been replaced by the red flag.

The last two weeks on the PGA Tour, men led by seven strokes early in the fourth round but did not win. Johnny Miller has a pet word for that. However you frame it, Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levin each lost control of seven-shot advantages.

The worlds of those two protagonists, of course, couldn’t be more different now. Stanley washed away his misery by, remarkably, making up an eight-shot deficit on Levin and thus passing the torch of pain.

Even Tiger Woods, golf’s best closer ever by about 100 miles, has trouble finishing the deal these days. Tied for the 54-hole lead with eventual winner Robert Rock two weeks ago at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Woods hit but two fairways and six greens in regulation in the final round and fell into a tie for third, two shots back. That’s the latest sign his swing remains a work in progress after more than 1 1/2 years.

All this is the latest evidence that winning at the highest level is not easy. There’s a continental divide between winning and finishing 10th, or even fifth. That’s my problem with some rankings; not enough emphasis is put on winning.

One pet peeve over the years has been that, in some corners, the victory has been discounted or cheapened. It takes talent to finish fifth. It takes guts to win.

At quick glance, you might have a hard time figuring out who had a better PGA Tour career, Tom Lehman or Mark O’Meara. But O’Meara won 16 times, Lehman five times. The difference of 11 wins is far wider than the perception.

That’s not to pick on Lehman, a terrific player and better man. It’s just to illustrate that sometimes victories aren’t weighted enough. Lehman’s win total, too, underscores the difficulty that goes into winning.

The last two weeks, winning from behind has been easier than winning from ahead. Some of that involves different mind-sets. Some players tend to play conservatively and protect when ahead but play aggressively when behind.

Call that unfortunate and understandable human nature. There’s more pressure sleeping on a big lead than when trailing by eight. Stanley is the latest to live that.

Stanley’s turnaround from Sunday to Sunday was both remarkable and impressive for so many reasons. He didn’t let his blown three-shot lead on the 72nd hole at the Farmers Insurance Open bother him.

He didn’t dwell; he believed.

In his subsequent victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Stanley demonstrated the star potential we knew he had and the inner resolve we didn’t know about.

At some point Stanley will learn how to win from out front. That has been Woods’ specialty. He made a difficult task look so easy with mental toughness. He spoiled us. He adjusted the curve.

Woods was 14-0 in major championships when leading after 54 holes until Y.E. Yang chased him down at the 2009 PGA Championship. Just as impressive if not moreso, Woods is 48-4 when holding at least a share of the third-round lead.

Making his 2012 Tour debut this week, Woods is a shade of the player he was during the peak of his glory years. Nonetheless, the calamities of the last two weeks do elevate him. They underscore his remarkable ability to excel when ahead.

Winning the week after losing a playoff, as Stanley did, might sound like a rare feat. But David Toms did it as recently as last May, when he followed Players Championship defeat with a win at Colonial.

It’s something of a comeback week in golf. And we’re not talking about Stanley. We’re talking about guys coming out of the M*ASH unit.

At the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Mike Weir is making his first start since July, and Dudley Hart is playing on Tour for the first time since the 2009 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Weir underwent right elbow surgery Aug. 18. Hart underwent spinal fusion surgery in June 2009.

At the Allianz Championship, Fred Funk will make his first Champions Tour start since July. He underwent two surgeries in August, to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and scar tissue in his right knee.

A compelling golf tournament, of course, ends in early April. Yes, it should get the attention of many men. No, it’s not the Masters.

Sure, Augusta will be fun. Always is. But this is something a bit different than the wearing of green jackets and the serving of pimento cheese sandwiches. The five-day Playboy Golf Finals end April 1 in Los Angeles.

The event offers several parties, including a couple at the Playboy Mansion, where organizers say golfers will meet celebrities, athletes, Playboy playmates and Girls of Playboy Golf.

Oh, yeah, there’s golf, too – at Pacific Palms Golf Resort.

Sleep figures to be challenging. Distractions figure to be high. Let’s just say the Masters never sent out a press release with this sentence: “The weekend culminates that night with the much-anticipated Lingerie and Pajama Party, where guests get an up close and personal taste of the Playboy Good Life as they attend the ultimate Playboy Mansion party, and rub elbows with Hef, Playboy Playmates, athletes and celebrities.”

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