Where was Johnny Miller when we needed him? Actually, as much as I do enjoy Miller’s commentary — and I know not everybody does — it would have almost been too cruel to hear him call Adam Scott’s epic collapse in the final round of the British Open on Sunday.
As far as I remember I don’t think Mike Tirico or Paul Azinger or Curtis Strange used the word choke during the final four holes and there’s little doubt Miller would have unleashed it at least a half dozen times. Could anyone blame him?
Once Tiger Woods finished flailing away out of bunkers and from far back on the fairway and his chance at a 15th major disappeared along with his ability to hit his short-irons, I did want Ernie Els to win. Part of it is due to his South African background but it was also fun watching him finally have a shot to win a decade after he last won a major. He expressed gratitude to Nelson Mandela in his acceptance speech and that putt on 18 Sunday seemed like the first time Ernie made a big one since Mandela was actually in office.
But for Els to win Scott had to collapse. And when it finally did happen it provided another reminder that there’s nothing quite like watching an athlete choke at a crucial moment. You’re fascinated, appalled, thankful if you’re cheering against the person or team, devastated if you’re supporting them, confused, scornful and sympathetic. And there’s nothing quite like a golf collapse. Unlike in team sports, the golfer stands there alone, decked out in sponsored gear but utterly naked on the course. The camera zooms in on their tanned faces and you can practically hear the director telling his operatives, “Make sure you catch the excess sweat and really look for a tear.” They grimace or bow their heads or go to their knees in hopes a hole might open and swallow them up. Even their caddies start to drift away from them, as if they’re worried about catching whatever it is that’s infected the golfer.
Tennis players collapse but so often that’s simply about the opponent taking over. Unless they double-fault constantly or forget how to hit a ball inside the lines, it’s hard to tell how much is a choke and how much credit goes to the foe. Not so in golf, despite Els’ superb play down the stretch and clutch putt.
When Scott stood on the 15th hole with a four-shot lead, I sort of hoped he’d fall back and give Ernie a shot. By the time he walked off the 18th green, I practically wanted to give him a hug.
Scott’s meltdown seemed different than so many other memorable ones we’ve seen on major Sundays. There really wasn’t one iconic image that stands out. Nothing like Mickelson wandering around the 72nd hole at the 2006 U.S. Open or Scott Hoch missing a short putt at the 1989 Masters. And certainly nothing like Jean Van de Velde rolling his pants up his leg. So in control through 14 holes, Scott simply misfired a few times and made rather regular bogeys. The picture-perfect swing remained the same, but the results completely changed. And we did finally discover the bad part about those long-putters — when things get tight and the pressure rises, your hands are higher up and that much closer to clutching your neck. The short miss at 16 was the true killer, but even after hitting sideways out of the bunker at 18, he left himself with a makeable putt that slid by. Just like that it was over and the world was saved from reading about how Steve Williams prevailed in the British Open.
When these things happen, do you remember the victor or the loser? It’s usually the vanquished, right? The lasting image from the 1995 NBA Finals has nothing to do with an Hakeem Olajuwon move in the post. It’s Nick Anderson’s face after he missed four free throws in Game 1. Do you know anything about Nick Faldo’s 1996 Masters victory — which holes he birdied, which pars he saved? — or do you simply recall Norman’s collapse?
While Scott cruising to victory would have made this tournament forgettable by Tuesday afternoon, his struggles ensure people will remember it for years to come. His collapse defines the 2012 Open, even as the tourney becomes a defining moment in Els’ career. The only question is if it’ll do the same to Scott’s. Based on the history of other players who have endured similar travails, the answer’s probably yes.
With his smooth swing and overall talent it seems improbable that Scott won’t eventually win a major. But as he showed Sunday, he’s quite capable of pulling off the impossible.