Tanner Furyk was 8½ at the time, fully able to comprehend the ramifications of the mess his father was making of the final hole at the 2012 Bridgestone Invitational. A 7-iron from Firestone’s 18th fairway that flew the green and settled in deep rough. A fluffed pitch that came up short of the green. A stubbed chip that left a five-foot bogey putt, which never had a chance.
A one-stroke lead would become a one-stroke loss, and for the second time in less than two months, Jim Furyk had fumbled away a premium-field tournament. Tanner would walk away in tears. No one could have seen this coming. For more than a decade, in what is most likely a Hall of Fame career, Furyk had carried a reputation as one of the game’s best closers, with 16 PGA Tour victories—the last six of those wins coming in a playoff or by a single shot.
Doral. Muirfield Village. Quail Hollow. East Lake. Despite ranking outside the top 150 in driving distance every year since 2003, Furyk won big events on the Tour’s best courses. He did it during golf’s most power-friendly era, when hitting fairways was no requisite for or guarantee of success. Even before a three-win season in 2010 carried him to Player of the Year honors and a $10 million bonus as the FedEx Cup champion, Furyk had distinguished himself as the best short hitter of his generation.
“The difference is, I had three really good chances to win that year and won all three,” he says. “In 2014, I had four or five good chances and didn’t win one.”
Opportunity knocks? You could say that, even if the door didn’t open. Last month at Pebble Beach, for the ninth consecutive time Furyk failed to win after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. No active player is anywhere near matching such a streak, which is epidemic by virtue of its length and conspicuous by its absence from the Tour’s record books. Furyk has lost to a guy who shot a 60 on Sunday (Tommy Gainey) and another who needed just 10 putts over the final nine holes (Tim Clark).
The folks in Ponte Vedra Beach don’t archive blown or converted leads as an official statistic. Apparently, what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Try telling that to Furyk. “It stings, it hurts—I wish I’d won more,” he says over lunch at Pablo Creek, a high-end private club in Jacksonville. “I’ve won 16 times and look back thinking I could have won a helluva lot more. I’ve stolen a couple too. There are two or three that I gave away and another 10 that I could have won. But I can’t go back and change it.”
So he lives with the missed opportunities, although it’s obvious he doesn’t dwell on them. “I don’t keep track of how many it’s been,” he says. “You could tell me it’s three or eight—I don’t know.” A week later at Pebble he endured one of his sloppier Sundays. Furyk led by one through three rounds but finished in a tie for seventh, six back of Brandt Snedeker. His closing 74 was the worst score posted among the top 40 finishers.
“I think it’s an anomaly,” says Paul Azinger, whose own career (12 wins, one major, several gallons of heartbreak) bears ample resemblance to Furyk’s. “You’d think it would be hard to say nine straight times is an anomaly, not a trend, but a lot of circumstances have led to it. He’s one of the best players America has. He’s the most consistent player on earth.”
Consistency is a relative concept, of course. For all the Tour pros who have piled up millions in earnings over the years without winning more than a couple of weak-field events, Furyk is far too good to fly under the radar. Because he contends so frequently, his Sunday shortcomings have become a growing story line. Nobody cares about the Web.com tour grad with a big house in the suburbs and a pile of T-17s.
Furyk’s dubious streak could have its roots in age (he turns 45 on May 12), but the early trouble might have had more to do with his equipment. Tour pros change equipment all the time. What’s puzzling is that some guys make the switch after one of their most successful seasons, which was the case for Furyk following his FedEx Cup triumph. “I had always tried to maximize my strengths,” he says. “In 2011, I tried to make some of my weaknesses better, and it ended up hurting my strengths.”
He began playing a low-spin golf ball that affected his short game and cost him accuracy with the driver. The result was one of the worst seasons of his career, although ’11 did end on a very positive note—Furyk went 5–0 that November at the Presidents Cup.
Paired with Phil Mickelson for the event at Royal Melbourne, Furyk realized that Mickelson’s high-spin Callaway ball was a much better fit for his skill set. He continues to play a version of that ball today, although he is quick to add, “My putting was absolutely terrible in 2011. I can’t blame any ball for that.”
He recalls one of his three victories in 2010, at Hilton Head. Even then, Tanner, the younger of Jim and Tabitha’s two children, was old enough to grasp the situation. “He had just turned seven, and he was really nervous,” recalls Jim. “Then Brian [Davis] made a 20-footer to force the playoff, then I ran a chip past the hole after Tanner thought I was going to win. Then we have a long delay while Brian gets a ruling—my boy was just going bananas. Why isn’t anyone hitting a shot? What’s going on? Why is it taking so long? He needed it to be over.”
So does Dad.
Some perspective on 54-hole leads: They’re anything but a slam dunk. Over an extended stretch, slightly less than half of all third-round leaders close the deal. That percentage has dipped slightly in recent months: Only 18 of the last 45 solo third-round leaders have gone on to win, and in the last nine Tour events, players who have owned or shared the 54-hole lead have come up short.
With that in mind, Tiger Woods’s stretch of 14 consecutive major titles from atop the third-round leader board ranks somewhere between astounding and otherworldly. “Sometimes you play great and win,” says sports psychologist Bob Rotella, whom Furyk began seeing in the spring of 2013. “Sometimes you play O.K. and win. Other times, you play great and lose. I think people spend too much time looking at where everybody stands on Saturday night.”
Before March 2012, Furyk converted 10 of 17 third-round leads into victories. Then at Innisbrook, an event he’d won two years earlier, he entered Sunday tied at the top with Retief Goosen and shot 69—only to lose in a four-man playoff to Luke Donald. Goosen, by the way, stumbled home with a 75. Hey, it’s golf. Stuff happens.
The next two lose-from-ahead defeats would reveal Furyk’s vulnerability in ways we had never seen. He began the final round of the ’12 U.S. Open at Olympic with 11 pars and a bogey, then bogeyed three of the last six holes to finish two back. The shot everyone remembers is the 3-wood he snapped into the trees off the 16th tee, which had been moved up 96 yards for the final round. USGA executive director Mike Davis elected not to inform the players that the usually mammoth par-5 had been shortened to 574 yards. Furyk bogeyed the hole and tied for fourth, two shots back of Webb Simpson.
“There is no way to prepare for a hundred-yard change,” Furyk said after the round. “To get to a tee where the fairway now makes a [sharp-left] turn—I was unprepared and didn’t know where to hit the ball off the tee.” To this day, Furyk remains annoyed that players weren’t notified of the change, but he’s also fully aware that his inability to handle the situation is what ultimately cost him a second U.S. Open title.
Seven weeks later it was retribution blown at Firestone. “The one that stung more than any other,” Furyk says. “I played well for 71 holes, screwed up 18, and I don’t even know how it happened.” Fast-forward seven weeks to the Ryder Cup. Furyk was perhaps the most scrutinized of Davis Love III’s four captain’s picks. When he closed bogey-bogey to lose 1 down to Sergio García in a pivotal singles match, the I-told-you-so legion could not be ignored.
“I’ll take the blame for all of it,” Furyk says of the U.S.’s ongoing woes against the Euros. “My record [10-20-4] sucks in the Ryder Cup. It’s probably the most disappointing part of my career. It’s my favorite event, and I haven’t played well in it.”
One month after surrendering a one-shot lead to Jason Dufner at the 2013 PGA Championship, Furyk fired a second-round 59 at the BMW Championship, a FedEx Cup playoff event outside Chicago, becoming the sixth man in Tour history to shoot golf’s magic number. Two days later he led by two with eight holes to play, made three bogeys down the stretch and limped home third.
He has no one to blame but himself, of course. “We’ve worked a lot on going about the job without expectations,” Rotella says, “on playing without a result in mind. Jim led the Tour last year in scrambling [he was also 12th in greens in regulation], so it’s not like he hasn’t performed. It’s amazing how often somebody had their best day of the year in the final round to beat him.”
Furyk initially approached Rotella with a different objective—he wanted to fall in love with tournament golf again. Perhaps the slew of Sunday demises in ’12 dulled his appetite for the hunt, as well as the process preceding it. For most of 2013, his 20th season on Tour, he wrestled with a notion: Something capable of providing him with so much financial security ($62.4 million, at last count) and such a sense of accomplishment shouldn’t make him so miserable.
Rotella’s counsel hasn’t stopped the streak, but Furyk is smiling more. On an unseasonably cool morning in northern Florida, he and a guest scoot around Pablo Creek in less than three hours. He shoots three under without an ounce of wasted effort, missing just one fairway while pointing out targets in the distance to someone dumb enough to play the back tees with him.
“Hit it at that tree with the weird limbs hanging from it,” he instructs. Easier said than done. Like closing out golf tournaments.