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 numbers. 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 golf.