"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 wall.
"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 eventual winner.
"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 tour.
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 subdued.
"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.