Golf is a game of patience and precision. It requires skills, smarts and above all, nerves of steel. The world’s best golfers are the ones who can not only put the ball in the hole, but do so with millions of eyes watching. Unfortunately, history has shown that sometimes even the best can crumble under the pressure.
In the United States alone, golf is a $76 billion industry with over 25 million players. Elite PGA golfers can walk away with millions for winning a single tournament. And it isn’t just the money piling on the pressure (although it’s surely at the back of every golfer’s mind) For 2013, the PGA tour is covered by the Golf Channel, CBS, NBC, Turner Sports and TNT, exposing the game to millions and ensuring that it retains its status as the most popular individual sport in America.
Below is a list of the top 10 richest golfers who choked when it counted the most. This list is arranged on the basis of the golfers’ all-time career earnings (without accounting for inflation).
10. Sam Snead – 1947 U.S. Open – Career Earnings: $726,700
Slammin’ Sam, as he was popularly known, had won a record 82 PGA Tours as well as 7 majors, making for a truly amazing career. Just about the only tournament Sam Snead was never able to win was the U.S. Open, finishing in second place four times. At the 1939 U.S. Open, Snead needed to make par on his final hole to seal the win. However, he triple-bogeyed away his chances at the cup. In 1947 Snead had to sink a mere two-and-half foot putt to claim his victory. Continuing his frustrations, Snead missed the putt as well as his chance at winning the elusive tourney.
9. Jean Van de Velde – 1999 British Open – Career Earnings: $1.51 Million
While far from a household name of the golfing world, Jean Van de Velde had come very close to winning the coveted British Open in 1999. On his last hole, he needed only a double-bogey to win the tournament. Unfortunately, Van de Velde found everything but the hole, hitting the sand, the rough, the water, and even the grandstands. Finally, he was able to finish the game with a triple-bogey. Had he won, Van de Velde would have been the first French golfer to win an Open Tournament since 1907.
8. Matt Gogel – 2000 Pebble Beach Pro-Am – Career Earnings: $4.59 Million
With seven holes to play, Matt Gogel held a seven stroke lead over Tiger Woods at the 2000 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. However, during the back nine on the last day of the tournament, Gogel’s game started to unravel. With Woods in his rearview mirror, Gogel couldn’t keep pace and eventually gave up his significant lead, finishing in a disappointing second place. In Gogel’s defense, this wasn’t so much a meltdown on his part as is was an amazing comeback by Woods who was arguably at the top of his career at the time. Nevertheless, what could have been a significant boost for Gogel’s career ended up as one of the biggest comeback victories in PGA history.
7. Thomas Bjorn – 2003 British Open – Career Earnings: $4.78 Million
Thomas Bjorn is yet another player who faltered at the notorious British Open. During the 2003 edition, Bjorn held a three-shot lead with four holes to go. However, he double-bogeyed his sixteenth hole and bogeyed his seventeenth, causing him to lose his advantage and finally concede the trophy to Ben Curtis. The loss was devastating for Bjorn, but especially triumphant for Curtis, being not only his first PGA win but also his first top 10 finish.
6. Arnold Palmer – 1966 U.S. Open – Career Earnings: $6.9 Million
Even today, Arnold Palmer is considered one of the top golfers in the world, and for good reason. He won the 1960 U.S. Open after entering the final round with a seven-shot deficit; one of many such performances to his credit. But along with his upsets came a few breakdowns. Going into his seventeenth hole at the 1966 U.S Open, Palmer held a seven-shot lead over his opponent Billy Casper. Palmer lost the lead and leveled against Casper before going to the final hole. After drawing the match to a playoff, Palmer once again held the advantage. However, he lost that too and ended up losing a tournament that he had in his back pocket.
5. Tom Watson – 2009 British Open – Career Earnings: $11.16 Million
Had Tom Watson won the 2009 British Open, it would have been remembered as one of the most delightful golfing feats of this generation. The 60-year-old had to hit par on his eighteenth hole to win the tournament. Only a short putt stood between Watson and his victory, but the pressure proved to be too much as Watson missed what should have been an easy shot. Watson lost the ensuing playoff against Stewart Cink and the rest is now just history.
4. Lorena Ochoa – 2005 U.S. Women’s Open – Career Earnings: $14.86 Million
Lorena Ochoa had a chance to win the U.S. Women’s Open tournament with a birdie on the eighteenth hole. If not a win, she could have at least forced a playoff, but her driver missed the sweet spot and she drove the ball right into the water. Ochoa never recovered from her mistake and even found her way into the grandstands. She finally finished the eighteen hole with a quadruple-bogey and finished four strokes back from winner Birdie Kim in a four-way tie for sixth place. Ochoa is now remembered to have hit one of the worst drives ever at a critical point in a major tournament, but she nevertheless remains one of the most decorated Mexican golfers of all time.
3. Sergio Garcia – 2005 Wachovia Championship – Career Earnings: $24.99 Million
Sergio Garcia had a six-shot lead going into the final round at the Wachovia Championship in 2005. Going up against experienced veterans Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk, Garcia couldn’t handle the pressure of holding the lead. Garcia shot a decent 72, but five other players shot 66. In the end it came down to a three-way playoff between Garcia, Singh and Furyk in which Garcia couldn’t compete. He gave it all away in that last round and became the fifth person in PGA Tour history to blow a six-shot lead with 18 holes to play.
2. Greg Norman – 1996 Masters – Career Earnings: $15.08 Million
Greg Norman is certainly a player who had a lot of up and downs in his golfing career. Though his fans attributed his shortcomings to bad luck, most of the critics were of the opinion that Norman couldn’t handle tense situations. At the end of the day, what matters is the end result, and Norman was consistent at choking in the final stages of the game. During the 1996 Masters, Norman entered the final round with a six-shot lead over second place Nick Faldo. The next 18 holes were like watching a car accident in slow motion. By the end of the round, Norman’s lead had turned into a staggering five-shot deficit. His loss to Faldo has gone down as one of the worst meltdowns in sports history.
1. Phil Mickelson – 2006 U.S. Open – Career Earnings: $55.71 Million
During the 2006 season, the competition between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods was at its peak, with both sportsmen fighting fiercely for their spot atop the PGA standings. On his eighteenth hole of that year’s U.S Open, Mickelson had a one-shot lead which should have been enough to seal his victory. However, Mickelson’s drive was off the mark and reached the hospitality tent instead of the green. His second shot was too aggressive and the ball hit a tree. As a result of Mickelson’s painful choking, Geoff Ogilvy walked away as the 2006 U.S. Open champion. After the match Mickelson gave some insight into his breakdown with the words “I’m such and idiot.”