Jim Simons doesn't look at leading the U.S. Open after three rounds as the most pressure-packed position in golf. When he built a two-stroke edge after 54 holes at Merion in 1971, he did it by playing one shot at a time and adding them up at the end of the day. Even in the long hours before the final round, he didn't dwell on the enormity of what lay ahead.
Simons was a 21-year-old amateur with a pug nose and bowl-cut mop of blond hair who for three days split Merion's exacting fairways, buzzed its wicker-basket pins with neatly clipped short irons, and maintained a smooth and aggressive putting stroke on its glassy greens. On Saturday, playing with Lee Trevino, he snapped off a startling 65 that thrust him into the spotlight. Rather than being unnerved at the prospect of becoming the first amateur to win the Open since John Goodman in 1933, Simons went to bed looking forward to playing on Sunday in the final pair with Jack Nicklaus.
"I was playing well, so my confidence was high," remembers Simons, now a stockbroker in West Palm Beach, Fla. "My concentration that week was the best of my entire career."
Simons might have been experiencing his own version of Open coma, but unfortunately, it didn't last through Sunday. After arising in their hotel room, he and his roommate, Lanny Wadkins, his Wake Forest golf teammate who would go on to finish 13th in the championship, maintained the offhand calm of warriors before battle as they readied themselves to leave for the course. For the occasion Simons put on a bright red golf shirt. Everything was fine until it was time to leave.
"Uh, Jim," said Wadkins, as casually as he could, "your shirt's on inside out."
Simons had to laugh, just as he laughs today when he remembers the scene. "As I pulled that shirt over my head, I remember thinking, This might be a tough day."
In fact, even for third-round leaders who possess the equanimity of Simons at Merion, Open Sunday is probably the toughest day in golf. Since 1965, the year the Open changed from having the final 36 holes played on Saturday to having the third round on Saturday and the fourth round on Sunday, Simons is one of the group of only 38 players who have ever led or shared the lead in the U.S. Open going into the final 18. When he shot 76 with four bogeys and a double bogey to finish tied for fifth—in the Open that will be remembered for the way Trevino defeated Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff—he became one of the 26 leaders who fell short.
Of course, at every level of professional golf the task of starting the final day with a lead and converting it into a victory is anything but a given. In regular events on the PGA Tour from 1990 through 1994, leaders going into the final round won at a rate of less than 50% (87 of 183 times in 72-hole or 90-hole events).
There are plenty of reasons that leaders don't win more often—a hot putter can cool off, another player can heat up, Band-Aids and chewing gum can no longer hold together a broken swing. But the biggest factor in holding a lead is mental. Psychologically, a player who has to sleep on a lead has more to lose. If he wins, he was supposed to. If he loses, he blew it. That burden is so unbearable for some players that they actually prefer to go into a last round behind.
At the U.S. Open the potential for the polar extremes of glory and devastation intensifies the situation exponentially. Throw in the summer swelter of the traditional East Coast sites, the general congestion that ensues when a major championship is held on a venerable course, the torturously slow pace and the maddening demands of conditions contrived to severely punish small mistakes, and it's no wonder that the 54-hole lead of the U.S. Open is more resistant to victory than any other in golf.