Updated: February 14, 2012, 7:25 PM ET

The winning learning curve can be painful

Harig By Bob Harig

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- If there was ever any question about how difficult it is to win a professional golf tournament, the past two weeks on the PGA Tour certainly offered up some compelling evidence.

Kyle Stanley and Spencer Levin seemingly had their respective tournaments won in San Diego and Phoenix, a solid final round away from victory. Both had commanding leads. In fact, Levin's 6-shot advantage had been squandered after 54 holes just five previous times.

[+] EnlargeKyle Stanley
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKyle Stanley stumbled hard on the final hole at Torrey Pines, only to rise up a week later to secure his first PGA Tour victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

But neither was able to close the deal.

Stanley's 5-shot lead at Torrey Pines swelled to seven and was three when he played the par-5 18th hole, needing only to hit the green with a wedge and 4-putt to win. Of course, he hit it in the water, 3-putted, then lost a playoff to Brandt Snedeker.

A week later, Stanley got redemption by shooting a final-round 65 to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Of course, he needed Levin to implode, a 4-over-par 75 allowing Stanley to come from 8 strokes back and win.

Both players were nearly inconsolable after their defeats, and both showed just how difficult it is to close the deal.

"You can't really teach somebody the experience aspect of it, and I think being in contention last week, I think the more times you get there, the more comfortable you get," Stanley said. "My caddie, Brett [Waldman], did a great job of keeping me in the present there on the back nine. I don't know what I'd do without that guy. We just played golf, stuck to our game plan, and here we are."

All of which provides some perspective and perhaps reminds that what players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have accomplished tends to be taken for granted.

Woods owns 71 PGA Tour titles and has a remarkable record of closing out tournaments, especially with a 54-hole lead. But worldwide, he has now failed to win three of his past five events when in that position, the latest at the Abu Dhabi Championship two weeks ago.

All kinds of consternation ensued, and obviously Woods is trying to regain his form, not trying to win for the first time. The fact a little-known player named Robert Rock beat him suggests again that the task is never easy.

Woods makes his PGA Tour debut this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where the focus will again be on his 26-tournament winless streak in official events.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Levin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCould Spencer Levin repeat the heartbreaking loss one week and triumphant victory the next? Well, he did finish T-4 last year at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

But there was a time when Woods failed to close out his first tournament victory. Way back in 1996 at the Quad City Classic, just weeks after he turned pro, Woods held a 54-hole lead but was defeated by veteran Ed Fiori. It remains one of just four times in 52 tries that he failed to convert a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour.

"I think overall it really helped me," said Woods, who noted at the time he had no status on the PGA Tour. "If I didn't go through that experience, just like what Kyle went through at Torrey, he probably doesn't come back and win. What that allowed me to do is understand and feel the heat at this level.

"That helped a lot going through that one tournament. It showed me that one, I could get there, and two, where I needed to improve."

Mickelson, meanwhile, has gotten off to a lackluster start in 2012, with a missed cut at Torrey Pines and a poor finish Sunday in Phoenix. The winner of 39 PGA Tour events, Mickelson hasn't won since the Houston Open the week prior to the Masters.

Levin can't relate. Chirping about not winning enough is much different than for someone who has never won, period.

"I gave it away, simple as that," Levin said. "You have a 6-shot lead and lose, you gave it away. My hat's off to Kyle; he played a great round. He went and got it. But if you've got a 6-shot lead and don't win, then I think it's on the player with the lead for sure."

Levin gets another chance this week at Pebble Beach, where he can only hope that things go as well for him as they did for Stanley in Arizona.

The future of long/belly putters

The feeling for years among golf rules gurus is that the belly putters and long putters that have become so popular are here to stay, that rules to ban their use needed to be put in place long ago. Well, maybe not.

At the United States Golf Association's annual meeting on Saturday in Houston, it became clear that the rules making body -- along with the R&A in the rest of the world -- are not done with the debate.

USGA executive director Mike Davis said that a "fresh look" would be taken toward the issue.

But the notion of banning such putters is not in play. Instead, Davis discussed "anchoring" as the root of the issue. That refers to any putting method in which the putter is secured against the body. In the case of the belly putter, the handle of the club is anchored against the stomach. With a long putter, the club is secured on the chest.

Writing such a rule would be tricky, and nothing appears imminent, but it does seem that issue is not going away.

"All of a sudden … this has become a much bigger topic," Davis said at the meeting, according to Golfweek. "The USGA and R&A have been talking about this at length. We are looking at it from a perspective that … what we should look at for everything: What is good for the game, for all golfers, long term?

"It is something we have taken a fresh look at. More players are using it, both on the elite level and the recreational level. We want to be sure that we are looking at all the angles and thinking about what is in the best interests both of the traditions of the game, the history of the game, and what we think would be good for the game."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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