It was dusk on the eve of the final round of the 1996 Masters when an eminent British golf writer, no doubt well-meaning and well into his cups, looked at the six-stroke lead looming atop the giant scoreboard at Augusta National Golf Club and summoned the temerity to say to the leader, "Greg, old boy, there's no way you can (mess) this up now."
That Greg Norman sadly could, and did, bleed away that 54-hole Masters lead, remains one of the most vivid illustrations of what can happen in the heat of a final round at a major championship, when pressure builds and the cauldron bubbles over. The six strokes were gone by the turn, Norman shot 78, and a relentless 67 by Nick Faldo gave him his sixth and final major win, by five strokes.
Now comes the most recent example of why no lead is safe and any lead can vanish. Trying to turn his first 54-hole lead at a major into his first major victory, Adam Scott instead let his grip slip from the Claret Jug over the final four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the British Open.
As it invariably is on such occasions, the initial reaction was a mixture of shock and dismay over the loss by the popular Scott tinged with happiness for the win by the equally popular veteran, Ernie Els.
Leave it to the redoubtable Els, who shot 32 coming home for a brilliant 68 that included a birdie at the last, to put it into exactly the right context. Demonstrating the savoir-faire that comes from long experience with both sides of winning and losing, Els rescued the moment as adroitly as he had caught his second career Claret Jug.
He put his arm around Scott's shoulders, spoke about how he bad he felt for his good friend, recounted his own previous close calls at Lytham & St. Annes -- where he had finished tied for third in 2001 and tied for second in 1996 -- and then classily referred to the iconic silver jug in his hands as "this gift today."
This is how uncomfortable moments can be rescued by the right hands, something that happens more often in golf than any sport. A time for reflection and understatement got precisely that from Els, a tough competitor with an easy demeanor. And when he spoke later about how he expects Scott to win "more of these than I have," Els, who is not given to gratuitous platitudes, wasn't blowing any smoke.
The 42-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer knows what he is talking about. This was his fourth major championship victory in a career that could have included -- at the very least -- three more. In 2004 alone he lost the Masters by a stroke to Phil Mickelson, who birdied the last hole; he lost a playoff for the British Open to Todd Hamilton; he three-putted the final hole at the PGA Championship to miss a playoff by a stroke.
And that's really the larger point. To appreciate what happened on Sunday, it helps to take the long view. Adam Scott might not be feeling very good yet, but he is certainly not the only player to feel the sting from a bitter Sunday reversal -- only the most recent.
History has shown time and again that closing out a major golf championship with the 54-hole lead has always been among the most difficult tasks in sports. And it isn't getting any easier.
Consider that from 2001-10, 54-hole leaders at major championships converted just about 60 percent of the time. This statistic is skewed by the dominance of Tiger Woods, who won nine of his 14 major titles during that period. As in his previous five major wins, Woods went into every Sunday with at least a share of the lead and was undefeated with the lead until Y.E. Yang beat him at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
Since then, much has been made of the fact that the last 16 major championships have produced 16 different winners. That's interesting. But more telling is that just four of those winners have been the 54-hole leader. The lone front-runners who finished it off have been Darren Clarke in the 2011 British Open, Rory McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen at the 2010 British Open and Angel Cabrera at the 2009 Masters. On Sunday, Scott became the fourth 54-hole leader in the past six majors who was unable to close the deal.
Often the first few words a golfer says in the wake of a tough defeat are the most telling. The erudite ESPN commentator Tom Rinaldi caught Scott on the putting green at Royal Lytham shortly after Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, had awarded to Ernie Els the gold medal for the "Champion Golfer of the Year" upon which Scott's name had been outlined -- but not engraved.
Rinaldi simply asked Scott what he would take away from the experience he had just endured, an experience that will no doubt shape the rest of his career for good or ill.
After recounting the errors he made coming down the stretch, Scott's expression changed from the half-smile he had worn during most of the greenside ceremony. He set his jaw and looked straight ahead, thinking it over, perhaps mulling his year-to-date play, the tie for eighth at the Masters, tie for 15th at the U.S. Open, solo third at the AT&T National three weeks ago and the solo second at Lytham.
"Look," he said finally, "I've got to take something out of it. I'm playing great. I just didn't make up for a few errors that I made. I couldn't make the putts to make up for the errors on the last few holes."
Scott signed off with, "No worries," and a smile. That might be just the attitude he'll need to take into this last part of the season, where he will attempt to defend his title at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South in a couple weeks and try again to win his first major championship, the following week at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
Don't be surprised to see him in contention.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.