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From Phil to Arnie to Lexi and More: Ranking the Worst Final-Hole Major Meltdowns

Mito Pereira's 72nd-hole mess two weeks ago cost him a major, but it doesn't make Gary Van Sickle's list of the worst such moments. Cover one eye as you read.
A PGA rules official and Dustin Johnson at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

A PGA rules official delivered very bad news to Dustin Johnson on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Finally, some good news for Chile’s Mito Pereira, the underdog many observers rooted for to win the recent PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club. Pereira led by three strokes after 54 holes, held a one-shot lead going to the last hole and sent his drive into a creek. It led to a double that cost him a spot in a playoff eventually won by Justin Thomas, who’d begun the round seven shots behind Pereira.

What’s the good news for Pereira? The gut-wrenching finish in his first major appearance didn’t make this list of the 10 most egregious disasters on the 72nd hole of major championships. Just like Southern Hills, Pereira only came close. Pereira may get more chances, of course, or as old-time NBC baseball announcer Curt Gowdy liked to awkwardly say about teams in one of his favorite cliches, “Their future is ahead of them.”

Didn’t Yogi Berra say that, too? This feels like déjà vu all over again.

Anyway, The Ranking:

10. Lexi Thompson, 2021 U.S. Open

Do you remember Thompson’s second major championship last year? No, because it didn’t happen. Thompson held a five-shot lead early in the final round but a series of mistakes, including a bogey at the 17th, erased her lead. She needed a par at the 18th hole to join a playoff, a birdie to win outright. It still looked like her Open when she split the fairway with a tee shot.

Then she hit a wedge — a wedge! — into the one place she couldn’t afford to hit it, woefully short and in the deep front bunker. She splashed out to 10 feet — not great but not awful, then left her must-make par putt two feet short of the hole. The last few holes were a nightmare but really she made bogey from the fairway with a wedge. You just can’t do that.

9. I.K. Kim, 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship

The unfortunate Kim tried to make us forget Doug Sanders, Scott Hoch, Hubert Green and a few others who missed vital putts on the 18th green. Kim, a rookie on the LPGA Tour, held a one-shot lead on the final green and had a birdie putt that she lagged to within 14 inches. All she had left was a tap-tap-tap-a-roonie (as detailed by golf legend Happy Gilmore). Except Kim’s tap-in horseshoed around the cup and stayed out.

Nobody has missed a shorter putt on the last hole to win a major championship in the modern era. She still earned a spot in a playoff but lost to Sun Young Yoo. Kim, a popular player among her peers and a seven-time LPGA winner, finally got her major five years later in the Women’s British Open. But she has finished in the top 25 at the Kraft Nabisco (now the Chevron Championship) only once since her haunting short miss. You can find that video on the Internet but don’t. What if it’s contagious?

8. Adam Scott, 2012 British Open

The worst part of this epic finish is that Scott, who had never won a major at this point, stepped to the 15th hole with a four-shot lead at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Then Scott began to unravel and bogeyed the next three holes. A par at the 18th hole, however, would still win the Open for him.

Scott opted to hit driver even though an iron easily would have put him in the fairway and in position for par. His drive found a dreaded pot bunker and he was forced to play out sideways. The story wasn’t over yet. Scott hit a superb approach to seven feet but, wielding his long putter, missed his par putt and gave the win to a surprised Ernie Els.

Correction: The worst part was that I’d bet $200 on Scott to win at 27-1 a few weeks earlier after a vivid dream that he’d capture the Open. Do the math, that collapse was painful. Scott got his major the next year, however, when he won the Masters in a playoff.

Correction on the correction: Actually, the worst part was that watching Els with a belly putter beat Scott with a long putter fired up R&A head Peter Dawson to successfully push through a rule banning the practice of anchoring putters, hurting a lot of senior golfers (and others).

7. Lorena Ochoa, 2005 U.S. Women's Open

Guadalajara native Lorena Ochoa was already a rising LPGA star, having won four times in the previous 14 months, including twice earlier in 2005. She had a great opportunity at the Open at Denver’s Cherry Hills, having made a charge that left her one stroke back on the 18th tee. The leaders behind her were struggling and it turned out that a par would’ve gotten her into a playoff.

Ochoa teed up a 3-wood on the par-4 hole, swung and hit the ground behind the ball, drop-kicking it into the lake. She re-teed, drove into the rough and ended up making a quadruple-bogey 8 that dropped her to sixth. Yes, she won 27 times, including a pair of majors and to became the No. 1 female player in a world before abruptly retiring, but she never won a U.S. Open. Despite the quad, she still shot a 1-over 71, one of the day’s better rounds. “That’s the way golf is,” she tearfully said after the round. “I was playing my best for 71 holes and then on the last one, I gave it away.”

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6. Dustin Johnson, 2010 PGA Championship

Neither Dustin Johnson nor his caddie read the pre-tournament rules statement posted in the Whistling Straits locker room that any sand on the course was to be played as a bunker. Oops. Johnson hit a drive into a fairway bunker that was filled with fans’ footprints at the 18th hole. Not realizing he was in a bunker, Johnson grounded his club for the next shot, hit it on the green and two-putted for par and an apparent playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer.

On the green, an official informed Johnson that he’d violated the grounding-the-club-in-a-bunker rule, earning a two-shot penalty that dropped him to fifth place. Johnson said it never occurred to him that the messy area was a bunker. “I guess the only worse thing would be if I had made that (birdie) putt on the last hole,” Johnson said.

A win revoked by a penalty? That’s strong enough to make a cheesehead melt.

5. Arnold Palmer, 1961 Masters

Even the great Arnold Palmer booted a major on the last hole. The King had a one-stroke lead over Gary Player, had just hit a drive in the final fairway and was clearly about to win his third Masters in four years and become the first player ever to win back-to-back Masters. Not so fast, Arnie’s Army. He hit a poor approach shot into a greenside bunker, thinned his sand shot well over the green, chipped to 15 feet and two-putted for double bogey, giving Player the victory. Palmer’s alibi: A friend called him over to the ropes to congratulate him on winning another Masters as he walked off the 18th tee. Palmer said he made a mistake in accepting the accolade because he hadn’t won it yet and the incident broke his concentration.

4. Colin Montgomerie, 2006 U.S. Open

This was Monty’s time to finally win an Open. He’d just sank a monster 50-foot birdie putt on Winged Foot’s 71st hole to tie Phil Mickelson for the lead, and hit a perfect drive in the 18th fairway. Then the game’s finest iron player mishit a 7-iron into a gnarly lie short of the green, chipped poorly and three-putted for a double bogey. Monty’s excuse: He later blamed playing partner Vijay Singh, who iced Monty for 10 minutes while getting a couple of rulings and drops in the left rough before playing on. Had he gone ahead and played first, Monty is sure he would’ve hit the green and made par, which, it turned out, would have won the Open.

At last week’s Senior PGA in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Monty told, “I’m not over that one, never will be.” Neither is Geoff Ogilvy, who earned his only major title.

3. Phil Mickelson, 2006 U.S. Open

This masochistic finish featured Phil’s famous line, “I am such an idiot.” It would unfair to jump on Phil now and say, "Yeah, we didn’t know the half of it." It was here, after a closing double bogey off a hospitality tent, a tree and in a buried lie in a bunker, where Mickelson tied Sam Snead for most runner-up finishes in an Open with four. Mickelson has since added two more.

He had a one-shot lead on the 18th tee in the final round. Though he’d driven it awful all day, including spraying one into a trash can on the 17th, Mickelson hit driver. The day before, he’d faded it around and corner and had an easy wedge shot in. Sunday, he blocked it way left off a tent; tried a heroic recovery shot that hit a tree and advanced only 25 yards; then got it near the green in a buried bunker lie. He actually had to get up and down from the rough to salvage a double bogey and then, head in hands, uttered his career-moment line. Why did the game’s best wedge player not pitch out to the fairway and take his chances on getting up and down for the win, or at least securing a bogey for a playoff? Enter the I-word.

2. Jean Van de Velde, 1999 British Open

Wait, Van de Velde isn’t No. 1? Shockingly, no. The lovable Frenchman had a three-shot lead on the 18th tee at Carnoustie. He wins it with a double bogey. He could have bunted 5-iron, 7-iron, 7-iron onto the green. But no, he hit driver into the right rough, barely clearing the Barry Burn water hazard. Lay up next, right? No, our man Jean goes for the green with a 2-iron, doinks it off a grandstand railing (truly unlucky) and then off the rock wall holding the burn. He’s got a thick lie.

Lay up now? No! He goes for the green and chunks it into the burn, then wades in (shoeless) to consider playing it out of the water hazard, the photo op of the golfing decade. Penalty drop, pitch to bunker — omg this is getting ugly. Then he gets up and down for triple bogey to get in a playoff with Paul Lawrie, who’d begun the round 10 strokes back, and Justin Leonard. You know the rest. Lawrie wins but is usually overlooked in the wake of the nuclear explosion that was Van de Velde. Would you rather win an Open or be remembered forever? Hmm …

1. Sam Snead, 1939 U.S. Open

All right, The Slammer didn’t have a leaderboard or any other reliable information about where he stood on the 18th tee at Philadelphia Country Club in the Open’s final round. So he’s got an excuse, sort of. The 18th was a par 5 and Snead believed he needed a birdie to win so he went for the green in two even though he’d driven it into a fairway bunker. What? Snead tried to hit his 2 ½-wood from the bunker and topped it into a ditch. The next shot buried under the lip of another bunker and soon turned into a triple-bogey 8 on a reachable par 5 (well, reachable for him, the longest hitter in the game). Years later, he admitted that if he’d known the score, he would’ve laid up with a 3-iron, “made an easy par” and won. Instead, Byron Nelson beat Denny Shute and Craig Wood the next day in a playoff.

Snead never won an Open in his Hall of Fame career. A pretty good modern player broke his record for runner-up finishes. What was his name again? I think it started with an “I.”

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