Lessons learned for major leaders

BETHESDA, Md. -- Nobody ever guaranteed a restful night preceding such a monumental day. But sleeping on the lead of a major championship has turned into downright frightful, one-eye-open kind of stuff.

It has become bad enough that you wonder if anybody is willing to poke ahead through 54 holes of the 111th U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club. Especially after all the trauma of the past year. Better to lurk in the shadows, come from behind, and put aside the pressure -- perceived or otherwise -- that seemingly comes with such a lofty perch.

Throughout golf history, plenty of players have succumbed to the heat of a major championship's final round. So Dustin Johnson's stumble last year at Pebble Beach could be written off as an aberration. Same for Nick Watney at Whistling Straights. And Rory McIlroy's 80 at Augusta National.

Well, until you look closer and realize that three of the last four major championships have seen their third-round leader not only falter, but shoot in the 80s. Only Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open was able to get home, but the South African had a seven-shot lead at St. Andrews and was never really threatened Sunday. (To take it further, Graeme McDowell had the third-round lead at the Players Championship and shot 79.)

"There is a huge difference in taking a 54-hole lead into a U.S. Open versus a regular tour event," said two-time U.S. Open champ and ESPN analyst Curtis Strange. "It's hard to put into words. The ramped up of nerves, of anxiousness; sleeplessness, pressure. That's the only way you explain Rory McIlroy, Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson of late.

"There is one other common denominator of all these names: inexperience. If these players are back in contention Sunday afternoon, they'll handle it much, much better. But being inexperienced, being young and just never having to deal with this, you have no idea. It's like an out-of-body experience. You have to be there to understand what your body goes through."

A player who knows a little something about 54-hole leads at major championships is Tiger Woods. He's been tied or the outright leader of a major 15 times. Only once (the 2009 PGA Championship) did he fail to come out on top.

Think about that.

It's a remarkable feat to get to that position so many times. To convert at that level is uncanny. Woods needed playoffs to win two of the titles. And the only time he failed was when holding a 2-shot lead over Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine two years ago.

"It's never easy to win a major regardless what position you start in on Sunday," said Woods, who is sitting out this year's U.S. Open due to injuries. "There's only four a year and everyone is watching. There's a lot of pressure and it's something you never really get used to. It's not a bad thing to be nervous, but you have to channel it in the right direction.

"Dustin, Nick and Rory are all really good players with very bright futures. They'll learn from what happened and use it to their benefit in the future."

Although it wasn't a major, Woods was able to build on the lessons he learned the first time he held a 54-hole lead as a pro -- at the 1996 Quad Cities Open, where Ed Fiori came from behind to win.

Less than a year later, Woods built a 9-stroke lead through 54 holes at the Masters and went on to win his first major championship by 12. That next time was far more stressful. Woods led Mike Weir and Sergio Garcia by 2 at the 1999 PGA Championship, and while Weir shot 80, Garcia carded a 71 to finish 1 stroke behind Woods.

Jack Nicklaus, who leads all players with 18 major titles, held or shared the 54-hole lead 12 times, winning 10 of them. He was also a perfect 8-for-8 when he held sole possession after 54 holes.

The only times Nicklaus failed to convert with a share of the 54-hole lead was at the 1971 Masters and 1977 British Open. At Augusta, Nicklaus was tied with Charles Coody, who shot 70 to Nicklaus' 72 on the final day.

At Turnberry, Nicklaus was tied with Tom Watson through 54 holes in what would come to be known as the "Duel in the Sun." In this case, it was impossible to knock Nicklaus, who shot 66 the final day, only to be beaten by Watson's 65.

"I really don't remember what they were, but yes you do learn," said Nicklaus, who couldn't remember the 54-hole leads he had failed to convert. He mentioned the 1963 British Open at Royal Lytham as a possibility -- where he trailed after three rounds but missed a playoff with Bob Charles and Phil Rodgers by a stroke.

"I think you sometimes have to experience that before you learn how to do it. If you turn that negative into a positive of something not to do and you say, 'OK, I did these and they were wrong, what do I do and how do I do it … how do I concentrate and make myself think.' Then you learn from that.

"I'm sure all those guys are very, very good players and they'll all learn from it."

To a man, Johnson, Watney and McIlroy say they are better for the experience of having led a major through 54 holes and faltered. Johnson and Watney have since won PGA Tour events. The week after the Masters, McIlroy got into contention at a European Tour event in Malaysia.

McIlroy's collapse was the biggest, however. He had the largest lead and fell the farthest. From 4 shots in front to 10 behind, including a horrendous 43 on the back nine at Augusta National in which he fell apart after hitting his tee shot on the 10th hole -- when he was still tied for the lead -- amid two of the Augusta National cabins.

"I don't know how Dustin and Nick were feeling, but it's a new experience," McIlroy, 22, said of shooting 80. "I don't know if it's just because we all want it so badly that we sort of change from Saturday night to Sunday. … They're huge, they're major championships, and you want to really try and get your first one out of the way and kick on.

"I think the common thing probably between all three of us, we probably put ourselves under a lot of pressure on that Sunday to just get it done, and that probably worked against us."

Johnson appeared in control when he teed off with a 3-stroke advantage, playing in the final twosome with eventual champion Graeme McDowell. But it took two holes and less than 30 minutes for it all to unravel. He made a triple-bogey 7 at the second hole where he appeared to play several shots hastily. The lead was gone.

After a lost ball on the next hole, he made a double-bogey 6. Had Johnson been able to calm down and assess the situation, he would have discovered that it was an extremely difficult day at Pebble, that others were going to struggle, too.

But Johnson could never get back on track, finished with an 11-over 82 and ended the tournament 5 over par, 5 strokes back of McDowell and in a tie for eighth place.

"It was our first time holding a lead at a major," said Johnson, 26, who would get into contention again at the PGA Championship, where he missed a playoff only because of a controversial penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the last hole. "It's definitely a lot different. I had a good warm-up on Sunday when I had a 3-shot lead, had a good first hole, hit it right down the middle on 2 -- and I made a triple after driving it right down the middle with a wedge in my hand.

"It's a funny game. It's definitely tough. And to know what that situation is like and to know what to expect in that situation is definitely a bonus."

After the PGA fiasco, Johnson bounced back a month later to win his fourth PGA Tour title at the BMW Championship.

And Watney, too, felt he got a bit of redemption when he captured the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March for his third tour title and first since the PGA, where he double-bogeyed the first hole and never recovered.

Watney, 30, went on to shoot a 9-over 81 and dropped to a tie for 18th. He did manage to make a couple of late birdies while he was out of it, and was witness to Johnson's rules issues.

"The PGA left a horrible taste in my mouth, and in the offseason I really made it a goal to try to get in contention as much as I could and get that feeling back again and do better," Watney said.

"I was leading by 3 shots coming into Sunday of a major, so I think that for me to play with a chance to win like that -- I definitely got way ahead of myself and just didn't finish it off. The PGA definitely got the best of me. It was a horrible day in terms of the score, just a huge letdown. But I felt like I learned a lot that day."

They are certainly not the first -- and won't be the last -- to struggle with a lead on the final day of a major.

Jason Gore, who qualified for the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, was in the final twosome with two-time champion Retief Goosen. Gore shot 84, but later that year won three times on the Nationwide Tour and at the PGA Tour's 84 Lumber Classic. Goosen, the third-round leader, shot 81 to drop into a tie for 11th.

"That gave me something to feed off of," Gore said. "If I didn't have the meltdown, I wouldn't have had the summer I had."

At Oakmont in 2007, Aaron Baddeley found himself in the final pairing with Woods, leading by 2. But he made a triple-bogey 7 on the first hole and went on to shoot 80.

"The first thing I thought of when I walked off the green was, 'Hey I'm 1 back. It doesn't matter,'" Baddeley said. "I played the next holes really good. I wasn't really that flustered about it. The first hole went very quick, though. I didn't make any putts, then I messed up 7 and 8.

"It suggests how fine a line it is. If you can just get a little momentum. … My old caddie Pete Bender always talked about momentum. If you can get a little momentum on your side, it makes the game a lot easier."

In three of the last four majors, we've seen that momentum go the wrong way. Will a third-round lead at Congressional cause such angst?

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