There's been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years over the idea that golf is becoming too easy for the savants on the PGA Tour, but the early returns on the 2002 season suggest the opposite. Three up with seven to play, Scott McCarron kicked away last week's Nissan Open with startling ineptitude (page Gl6). His homely finish marked the third straight week a would-be champion choked coming down the stretch—J.L. Lewis at San Diego (afterward even he uttered the dreaded c word) and Pat Perez at Pebble Beach preceded McCarron. In all, six of the year's seven winners have come from behind on Sunday, which is another way of saying that six out of seven times the leader has blown it.
Even the beneficiary of McCarron's collapse seemed distressed by the trend. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone," Len Mattiace said of McCarron's finish. This from a 34-year-old journeyman who had been winless in his previous 219 starts on Tour. Mattiace's compassion comes from bitter experience. During the final round of the 1998 Players Championship, he arrived at the Stadium course's 17th hole only a stroke off the lead. He proceeded to hit two balls into the water and make a quintuple-bogey 8—with his gravely ill mother watching from a wheelchair near the green.
So much of a golfer's success is determined between the ears, but Mattiace describes Sunday pressure as a physical experience. "Your heart pounds in your chest," he said following his victory. "You breathe a lot quicker. You feel a little jittery in your stomach. Your legs get a little weak." Never more so than on the steep walk up Riviera's 18th fairway, but on Sunday, Mattiace delivered a gorgeous eight-iron to set up the winning par, one last solid strike in a rock-steady round of three-under 68. "I blocked out all the garbage and executed the shot," he said. As opposed to everybody else.
McCarron's self-immolation is what will be remembered, but plenty of other players flamed out during the final round. The game's best putter, Brad Faxon, missed a series of shortish birdie tries on the back nine; on 18, trailing by a stroke, he left a 12-footer an inch short. Standing on the 6th tee, Toru Taniguchi hadn't made a bogey in his previous 32 holes and had surged into a tie for the lead. Over the next four holes he made three bogeys and would finish two strokes back.
"What happens is, you get into areas you're not familiar with," said Mattiace. "Getting a chance to win a tournament—that's not something that happens to you every day. Today I had the same feelings as at the Players Championship, but I had a Utile more experience at handling them."
Mattiace displayed uncommon dignity after his debacle at Sawgrass and as much sportsmanship in victory. He deserves to be remembered as a worthy champion, but in this, the year of the gaffe, another image will linger. Following his postround press conference Mattiace hopped into a van to make his escape. Its radio was tuned to a sports-talk station, and no sooner had he settled into his seat than the strains of a news bulletin filled the vehicle: " Len Mattiace won the Nissan Open today when Scott McCarron bogeyed the 18th hole...." Upon hearing that, Mattiace smiled grimly and shook his head.