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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON GOLF: The Masters

Only a Few Have This Kind of Distance

Golf: Nicklaus, Miller, Watson and Woods. It's a rare player who takes a lead and builds on it on the way to winning a major.

April 08, 1999|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Golf isn't fair, beginning with the fact that you're outnumbered, 18-1 . . . holes to player.

The golf ball might be small, but it's round, which means it has the ability to roll. Many times it does not move in the proper direction. Then there is the golf swing. It is also trouble, mainly because it can't remember what it looked like the time before.

Even if you're a pro, you try to ignore all the problems and put it all together and win a tournament. This is harder than titanium. Now, imagine winning a major. This is even harder. It's easier to find a Little Bertha than win a major.

But that's what the great players do. And for many of the greatest players, they do it in style. They get out in front, sniff at the odds, turn back all challengers and ignore the pressure.

They come from ahead to win. They are closers. In baseball, they are the pitchers who come in with the game on the line and simply close the door on the other guys.

Golf has seen its share of closers too, and what they accomplished is the stuff that legends are made of. If majors define a player's career, then major closers define a player's career with an exclamation point.

If it's a special player who wins tournaments and an even more special one who wins majors, what kind of player is it who takes a lead and keeps it on his way to winning a major?

A rare one, says Johnny Miller, who said there was one factor that motivated him more than any other.

"Fear," he said.

"The thing is, for me, if I had a three-shot lead, I didn't like it," he said. "I wanted a five-shot lead so the opposition couldn't move closer.

"My goal was always to spread myself from the crowd."

Miller's reasoning was that the farther ahead he got, the more mistakes would be made by the players chasing him.

"The reason is that guys usually make more mistakes when they get more aggressive instead of when they are more conservative. Just a fact. Bad things happen."

Good things happened to Miller when he was in his prime. He won 16 times from 1973 through 1976 and won two majors in that stretch. Miller was basically a wire-to-wire winner in his hot streak, but just to show he couldn't be classified, his major victories were dissimilar.

He won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club with a 63 on the last day, coming from six shots down.

He won the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale going away, a six-shot margin over Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros.

As a closer, Miller said the most important trait in winning-from-ahead is the "light" theory.

"Green light, yellow light, red light," Miller said. "That's really the key thing. Green light, you go for the pins, you're aggressive. Yellow, you're cautious. Red, you lay it up. You have to know when to do what. You have to know what color the light is. That's the key to being a champion. Most people aren't really adaptable.

"Golf is such a battle with yourself. You're not really that much in head-to-head combat. It's you against the course, not another person. If you think about one guy, somebody else is going to run right over the top of you."

Miller said two of the best closers he has seen are Tom Watson and Payne Stewart, which is something of an irony because both of them were known for their failings until they finally broke through.

Watson, who has won eight majors, deserves a special place in this category, according to Miller.

"He is maybe the greatest closer in modern time," Miller said.

Watson has won 39 times--five British Opens, two Masters and one U.S. Open--since turning pro in 1975.

No one has won more than Nicklaus, who has 73 victories and 19 major championships. From 1971 through '73, he had 41 top-10 finishes in 55 events and won 19 times. He won in every conceivable fashion, but mostly from ahead because that's where Nicklaus spent most of his tournaments.

Said Miller: "Obviously, Nicklaus was so, so tough. Put him at the head of any class."

What's perhaps even more remarkable about Nicklaus' record in majors is the fact that he finished second 18 times.

In 1965, Nicklaus won the second of his six Masters titles by nine shots--a record at Augusta National until a new, younger front-runner named Tiger Woods won by 12 in 1997.

If Nicklaus and Woods are card-carrying front-runners, Miller said there is a category of front-runners who win from ahead that features players who are not known for having a chance to win many majors--but close the deal on those rare occasions.

"It's the Jerry West Syndrome," Miller said. "And Lee Janzen is the best example. Janzen doesn't put himself in position to win too consistently, but when he does, boy, he does it."

Janzen has won the U.S. Open twice, in 1993 and 1998, but the only other time he finished in the top 10 in a major was the 1997 PGA.

And Janzen's U.S. Open victories couldn't have been more different. In 1993 at Baltusrol, he was 36-hole and 54-hole leader, but he won last June at the Olympic Club by coming from five shots back and closing with a 68.

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