They are five men with a fair amount in common, the most obvious similarity being their occupation. Not just professional golfers, but successful tour pros at the game’s highest level. None of the five was ever classified as a phenom. Only one of them was a highly acclaimed college player, and he thought about pursuing a career in baseball instead.
Their combined PGA Tour earnings add up to about $87 million. They accumulated a total of 34 victories, not one of them a major, although all five guys came agonizingly close to winning golf’s most cherished title. A Masters triumph would have defined them forever, validating their excellence and ability to endure the most intense pressure that a silly little game can throw at a man.
All five failed on that mission. Either by crumbling to the moment, making a poor decision or just getting outplayed down the stretch, their opportunity of a lifetime slipped away. Are they still haunted by the loss? Would it have changed their lives? How do you reconcile working so hard for so long in pursuit of something you dreamed about as a little boy, and when the chance finally arrives, you’re unable to complete the job?
Five of the nicest and most accommodating tour pros you could ever meet. Five Sundays in April that went terribly wrong. Heartbreak has a way of picking on the wrong people, as my mini-list of Masters maledictions might attest.
5. Chris DiMarco (2005) – He was the one victimized by Tiger Woods’ miracle chip-in on Augusta National’s par-3 16th, a shot further immortalized by the ball’s decision to park on the very edge of the cup and tease the world for several seconds before toppling into the hole. It’s very easy to forget that Woods proceeded to bogey the 17th and 18th to initiate a playoff, or that DiMarco made a 10-footer for par at the last to accept Tiger’s invitation for sudden-death.
Of the five guys on this list, DiMarco certainly did the least amount of wrong en route to losing his Masters, which Woods claimed with a birdie on the first extra hole. And for a guy who supposedly didn’t have enough talent to reside in pro golf’s top tier, DiMarco sure knew how to turn heads at the game’ biggest events. The ’05 Masters earned him the bittersweet distinction of having lost in a playoff at back-to-back majors.
Fifteen months later, DiMarco was right there again, the last man standing as Woods edged him by two at the ’06 British Open. If three-quarters of the players on today’s Tour had half of DiMarco’s competitive tenacity, they’d be wearing a green jacket while they enjoyed their favorite beverage in a Claret Jug.
4. Chip Beck (1993) – Yes, it’s a bit of a reach, but no more so than the shot Beck chose not to attempt at the par-5 15th in his duel with Bernhard Langer, who led by three at the time. Faced with 236 yards to clear the pond and a substantial elevation factor working in his favor, Beck still laid up, which basically ended any chance he had of catching the steely German. To come so far and play so scared….
“It was marginal,” Beck would insist afterward. “Was it worth the risk? With a perfect shot, it could have worked out just right, but I didn’t want to lose the tournament on one shot.”
So, he lost it without hitting one, which is even worse. Guts are an ambitious golfer’s best friend, especially against an impenetrable foe such as Langer, who waltzed to his second Masters title. These days, that same shot is a stock 5-iron for most tour pros. You live by the sword? You die, rest assured.
3. Kenny Perry (2009) – It was all about the magnitude of the moment when Perry arrived on the 17th tee with a two-shot lead and a nest of hornets buzzing around in his stomach. He’d beaten himself up for years over whiffing the 1996 PGA Championship, held in his home state of Kentucky, because he hung out in the CBS booth after finishing his round instead of heading to the range and preparing for a playoff.
Thirteen years later, opportunity knocked again. This time, the lovable, easygoing Perry simply began trying too hard, overthinking everything and making decisions he never would have made earlier in the week. He was lucky to escape with a 5 at the 17th, made another bogey at the 18th and lost in a playoff to Angel Cabrera.
I’ll never forget seeing Perry’s 20-year-old daughter, Lindsey, sobbing as her dad went through the post-round interview process. Reality certainly has a wicked fastball. “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” the runner-up said. “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I can live with it. I really can.” And he has.
2. Len Mattiace (2003) – It’s amazing how the worst things happen to the best people. Mattiace was just one stroke off the lead at the 1998 Players Championship before making an absolute mess of the famed 17th. Two water balls, one from that evil greenside bunker, led to a quintuple bogey and more sympathy than any man could bear.
Five years later, his closing 65 in the muddiest conditions I’ve ever seen at Augusta National was three shots better than anyone in the field, and it’s not as if Mattiace teed off at 7 a.m. It landed him in a playoff with Mike Weir, at least for about 15 minutes. Mattiace’s approach into the 10th hung left, caromed off the greenside bank and settled in a maximum-security prison better known as a stand of Georgia pines.
He still had a 6-footer for double bogey when Weir tapped in for the title, and just like that, a journeyman with a big heart had found another reason to hate life. Mattiace never did recover competitively from that crash. Would you?
1. Scott Hoch (1989) – His reputation as a sourpuss was somewhat undeserved, and his ability to pile up birdies on any golf course went largely unnoticed. In his day, Hoch could really play, but he was never better than an average putter. And in another sudden-death playoff on another rainy evening at the 10th hole, a place where Masters dreams go to die, Hoch missed a 2-foot par putt that cost him a seat at the Champions Dinner table.
Actually, it was closer to 30 inches. “I know when I’ve hit a bad stroke because I’ve hit plenty of bad ones,” Hoch told Golf.com in 2014. “That was not a bad stroke. I felt good on it. I looked up. And I’d missed it.”
When I interviewed Hoch at length for a feature that ran in Golf World years ago, I was pleasantly surprised as to how candid he was about the whole ordeal. He talked about driving from Augusta to Hilton Head that evening in the pouring rain, his two young children in the back, still sick after a week of lousy weather.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Win or lose, hero or goat, the sun will rise tomorrow. It may not look as pretty as it once did, but it will shine on you all the same.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org