Jim Simons doesn't look at leading the U.S. Open after three
rounds as the most pressure-packed position in golf. When he
built a two-stroke edge after 54 holes at Merion in 1971, he did
it by playing one shot at a time and adding them up at the end
of the day. Even in the long hours before the final round, he
didn't dwell on the enormity of what lay ahead.
Simons was a 21-year-old amateur with a pug nose and bowl-cut
mop of blond hair who for three days split Merion's exacting
fairways, buzzed its wicker-basket pins with neatly clipped
short irons, and maintained a smooth and aggressive putting
stroke on its glassy greens. On Saturday, playing with Lee
Trevino, he snapped off a startling 65 that thrust him into the
spotlight. Rather than being unnerved at the prospect of
becoming the first amateur to win the Open since John Goodman in
1933, Simons went to bed looking forward to playing on Sunday in
the final pair with Jack Nicklaus.
"I was playing well, so my confidence was high," remembers
Simons, now a stockbroker in West Palm Beach, Fla. "My
concentration that week was the best of my entire career."
Simons might have been experiencing his own version of Open
coma, but unfortunately, it didn't last through Sunday. After
arising in their hotel room, he and his roommate, Lanny Wadkins,
his Wake Forest golf teammate who would go on to finish 13th in
the championship, maintained the offhand calm of warriors before
battle as they readied themselves to leave for the course. For
the occasion Simons put on a bright red golf shirt. Everything
was fine until it was time to leave.
June 18, 1995
"Uh, Jim," said Wadkins, as casually as he could, "your shirt's
on inside out."
Simons had to laugh, just as he laughs today when he remembers
the scene. "As I pulled that shirt over my head, I remember
thinking, This might be a tough day."
In fact, even for third-round leaders who possess the equanimity
of Simons at Merion, Open Sunday is probably the toughest day in
golf. Since 1965, the year the Open changed from having the
final 36 holes played on Saturday to having the third round on
Saturday and the fourth round on Sunday, Simons is one of the
group of only 38 players who have ever led or shared the lead in
the U.S. Open going into the final 18. When he shot 76 with four
bogeys and a double bogey to finish tied for fifth -- in the
Open that will be remembered for the way Trevino defeated
Nicklaus in an18-hole playoff -- he became one of the 26 leaders
who fell short.
Of course, at every level of professional golf the task of
starting the final day with a lead and converting it into a
victory is anything but a given. In regular events on the PGA
Tour from 1990 through 1994, leaders going into the final round
won at a rate of less than 50% (87 of 183 times in 72-hole or
There are plenty of reasons that leaders don't win more often --
a hot putter can cool off, another player can heat up, Band-Aids
and chewing gum can no longer hold together a broken swing. But
the biggest factor in holding a lead is mental. Psychologically,
a player who has to sleep on a lead has more to lose. If he
wins, he was supposed to. If he loses, he blew it. That burden
is so unbearable for some players that they actually prefer to
go into a last round behind.
At the U.S. Open the potential for the polar extremes of glory
and devastation intensifies the situation exponentially. Throw
in the summer swelter of the traditional East Coast sites, the
general congestion that ensues when a major championship is held
on a venerable course, the torturously slow pace and the
maddening demands of conditions contrived to severely punish
small mistakes, and it's no wonder that the 54-hole lead of the
U.S. Open is more resistant to victory than any other in golf.
In the 30 Opens since '65, third-round leaders or co-leaders
have only won 12 times. And that ratio would be worse if the
last two champions, Lee Janzen and Ernie Els, hadn't
accomplished the deed.
According to the numbers, Open Sunday is even tougher to
negotiate than the old Open Saturday, the climactic double round
that used to be universally considered golf's ultimate torture
chamber. In the 61 Opens in which the final 36 holes were
played on Saturday, beginning with the first 72-hole event in
1898, 28 of the third-round leaders or co-leaders went on to win.
Statistically the Open is the most difficult of all the major
championships for a third-round leader to close out. In the 59
times the Masters has been held, 32 third-round leaders have
gone on to win. At the PGA third-round leaders have won 20 of 37
since the championship went to stroke play in 1958. The closest
in difficulty is the British Open, which switched in 1966 from a
36-hole final to 18 holes each day and has since seen 14 of 29
third-round leaders or co-leaders win.
What's more telling is that third-round leaders in the U.S. Open
are prone to meltdowns. Consider that of the five players who
have had a three-stroke lead going into the final round, four
lost, with only Hale Irwin winning in 1979 at Inverness in Toledo.
The Open's third-round leaders seem particularly susceptible to
very big num-bers. At Pebble Beach in 1992 Gil Morgan became the
only man ever to reach 10 under par in an Open (he eventually
got to 12 under), though he finished with a crash-and-burn 81,
while at Baltusrol in 1967, Marty Fleckman reacted to his
one-shot lead entering the last round by shooting 80. "I wish I
hadn't shot 80," says Fleckman, now a 51-year-old teaching pro
at a Houston driving range who is considering an attempt at the
Senior tour. "Even 79 would have been much better. It's like it
feels better to pay $99.99 for something instead of $100."
Such stalwarts as Tom Watson and Irwin each have shot 79 after
taking the Open lead into Sunday. Watson did it at Winged Foot
in 1974, when Irwin overtook the field to win the first of his
three Open titles. Irwin's 79 came on Winged Foot 10 years
later. Indeed, Watson has failed to hold the third-round lead on
three occasions, while Arnold Palmer fell short twice. The list
of others who couldn't get it done on Open Sunday include Seve
Ballesteros, Greg Norman and two-time Open champion Julius Boros.
In fact, since the 18-hole final was instituted, only one player
has ever conquered the challenge of being the third-round leader
more than once-Nicklaus, in 1972 and 1980. Nicklaus's record
with the third-round lead in major championships may be one of
the most telling measures of his greatness. Of the five times he
has led after three rounds in the Masters, he has gone on to win
four times, losing only in 1971. Each of the four times he led
the PGA after three rounds, he won. He had the 54-hole lead only
once in the British Open, tying with Watson at Turnberry in 1977
and then losing by one after perhaps the most stirring
head-to-head battle in golf history. All told, Nicklaus is 10
for 12 in converting Saturday-night leads into victories in
majors. He has long maintained that the most difficult of the
four to win is the Open.
"It's tough leading any tournament, but the margin for error is
smaller at the Open," says Nicklaus. "You always want the lead,
but if you start protecting on an Open course, it becomes very
hard to make pars, let alone birdies. The crucial thing when
you're leading is to play the game that got you there."
Very few have been able to, particularly those who might have
been playing over their heads in the first place. Of all the
third-round leaders who have gone on to win, only two --
Nicklaus at Baltusrol in '80 and Janzen in '93 at the same
course -- broke 70 in the final round.
Strictly in what it requires in terms of shotmaking, a course
set up for the U.S. Open applies relentless pressure. The long
and tangly rough that borders the narrow fairways and firm
greens is consistently penal, and the punishment it metes out is
swift and sure. It may make for visually boring play in that it
virtually eliminates the possibility for creative recovery
shots, but the Open provides the truest test of ball control in
"There is no such thing as an easy hole in an Open
championship," says Irwin. "A less-than-good shot will lead to a
bogey unless it is countered with a better-than-good shot. It
brings par the value it should have."
Whereas on regular tournament courses less than sterling golf
can usually be salvaged into a decent score, mediocre stuff over
an essentially unforgiving Open layout can produce scores that
suggest complete collapse. All it takes to make a final-round
lead a memory is a sudden series of slightly pulled or pushed
drives that stop in the rough, which segues to a bevy of
eight-foot par putts that refuse to drop. As the strokes leak
away, an ex-leader caught on a Sunday bogey train takes on the
helpless appearance of a struggling marathoner who has hit the
"The Open just wears on you more," says Andy North, who won from
the front in '78 and from behind in '85. "A huge part of the
Open is that everybody struggles. You don't get done with your
round and feel good about the way you played. You're faced with
so many really hard shots, so many tough putts for pars, and the
weight of that just adds on each day. When people crack on
Sunday, it's as much from the accumulation of the first three
days as the pressure of the moment."
Conversely, when someone from out of the pack gets hot on
Sunday, it's harder for the leader or leaders to respond with
birdies to keep up. The textbook case was Johnny Miller, whose
63 at Oakmont in 1973 left everyone standing still, as only one
of the 12 players who had started ahead of him, Nicklaus, broke
70. The Open isn't like the Masters, which affords big stroke
shifts due to the potential for eagles and double bogeys, but
people can get passed and left behind quickly all the same.
The overall effect of trying to win an Open on Sunday can be
likened to a 100-meter race in which all the contenders must
negotiate the distance on a tightrope. Trying to go too fast or
looking around at the competition can be fatal. Bobby Jones, who
judged his biggest weakness to be an inability to play
consistent golf with a final-round lead, put it another way. In
his 11 U.S. Opens, of which he won four, Jones's fourth-round
average was 76, more than two strokes higher than he averaged in
any other round. "One always feels," Jones wrote, "that he is
running from something without knowing where nor what it is."
For some players the sensation can be overwhelming. Perhaps the
most candid former Open leader is Beard, who in 1975 at Medinah
had a three-stroke margin on the field after three rounds, only
to shoot an agonizing 78 that left him one stroke out of the
18-hole playoff between John Mahaffey and Lou Graham, the
"At the time I was just relieved to have finished, to get out of
there, have my butterflies done with," says Beard, now a
television commentator and a part-time competitor on the Senior
When Beard, who had been the Tour's leading money winner in
1969, arrived at Medinah, his career was in steep decline,
mostly because of personal problems rooted in alcoholism. But a
few weeks before the Open he had changed his grip and begun to
play better. When the Open started, he was so engrossed with
getting used to the new grip that his normal anxieties were
"That damn grip totally short-circuited any feelings I had about
playing well, about pressure or anything else," says Beard.
"Unfortunately, on Sunday morning I woke up and I really wanted
to win the U.S. Open. And with a three-stroke lead, I kind of
expected to, which was the worst thought I had all week. I went
into a state of anxiety. My stomach started churning again. And
I just kind of blew it. I blew it."
Beard lost his lead on the front nine, and although he fought
hard the rest of the way, it was with the kind of body language
and grimace that did not carry the look or feel of a winner.
"After I bogeyed the 2nd hole, it was all a blur," says Beard,
who still had a chance until he bogeyed 16 and 17 after missing
the greens with long irons. "I remember finishing and feeling
somewhere between disappointment, relief and a sense of
accomplishment. I'd finished third, and I hadn't finished
anywhere near the top 10 in a tournament for about five years.
"But later when I looked back, it was terrible. I couldn't have
asked for anything easier. For about two years I was thinking,
Oh my god, if somebody had told me I could shoot 76 on Sunday --
76 -- and win the Open, how happy I would have been. It was
really a loss. I thought about it often."
Beard now says that the process of alcohol rehabilitation has
given him the understanding to accept his Open failure just as
he has accepted his personal shortcomings. "I didn't respond to
pressure well," he says. "It had to do with other problems in my
life. Pressure was a big thing in my life, and in the major
championships it got worse. I didn't like being in the lead on
Saturday. I tried to avoid pressure.
"That is what separates players. Nicklaus loved the pressure.
Palmer loved it. They not only loved it, they rose to another
level, while guys like me were seeking a level below, just
trying to get out of there. It's the greatest gift a player can
It was the gift that made North the most opportunistic closer
the Open has ever seen. As a player who has won only three
official events in 23 years on the Tour, North was seriously in
the hunt twice in the Open and won both times. When he won at
Cherry Hills in 1978, he was the 36- and 54-hole leader. In
1985 North was lurking two strokes back after 54 holes and
seized the lead for good when third-round leader T.C. Chen
committed his infamous double hit and made a quadruple-bogey
eight on the 5th hole at Oakland Hills. In both final rounds
North shot less than artistic 74s, but he knew how to keep it
together at crunch time.
"Of course, leading during the final round makes you sick to
your stomach, but to me having a chance to win the U.S. Open was
what I'd lived all my life for," says North. "Any player who's
real competitive wants that opportunity. The thing is, except
for our absolute best players like Nicklaus, Trevino and Watson,
who could win on skill, the Open usually goes to the guy with a
lot of guts and intelligence. I always looked forward to the
Open because I felt I had a better chance than anyone else."
Despite his youth in 1971, Simons was the same type of player.
He had first qualified for the Open at 17 and had the kind of
straight, consistent game that was suited to an Open setup. "I
saw myself as a U.S. Open-type player," says Simons, who would
go on to win three times on the PGA Tour but would never again
seriously contend in an Open. "After Merion, people would see
me and compliment me on how well I played, and I'd be pleasant
and say thanks, but it wasn't what I was feeling. I'd had such a
great opportunity to do something. I thought about it every day
for a long time."
Although Simons had no big titles after his name in '71, he was,
in his own mind, primed for victory. In the weeks before the
Open he had been steeled by two pressure-packed events played
across the Atlantic in horrible weather: the Walker Cup, in
which the U.S. had been upset by Great Britain and Ireland; and
the British Amateur, in which Simons lost to Steve Melnyk, a
fellow U.S. Walker Cupper, in the final. Merion in June, says
Simons, "felt like a walk in the park."
So while it was easy to say afterward that the young amateur had
never had a chance, Simons knows otherwise. He held the lead as
late as the 14th hole on Sunday and came to the 72nd only a
stroke behind. After a bad kick took his ball into the deep
rough on the 458-yard, par-4 18th, Simons, going all out for a
miracle birdie, tried to hit a three-wood from the tangled lie
and advanced the ball about 100 yards. Deflated, he took four
more to get down.
"I was a little off on the last day, probably because of
nerves," he says. "But everyone struggled that day, even Jack. I
felt I could have, and should have, won it."
He has learned to take pride in how close he came rather than be
tortured by how far away close can be. In retrospect what helped
Simons move on were the words of Nicklaus when they came off the
"Jack put his arm around me and said, 'You played a lot better
than 76. You didn't make a nervous stroke all day.' Those words
mean more to me as time goes on."
On the most nerve-racking day in golf, they were high praise