6 Great Golfers Who Suddenly Lost Their Games

Yani Tseng of Taiwan hits her second shot on the 13th hole from the deep rough during the first round of the ShopRite LPGA Classic Presented by Acer on the Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club on June 8, 2018 in Galloway, New Jersey.
Yani Tseng in the rough.

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The history of golf includes multiple examples of great golfers, champion golfers, major championship winners, who just suddenly ... lost it. They lost their games, and never got their games back. These are the most-famous examples.

Ian Baker-Finch

Ian Baker-Finch at the 1996 British Open
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Ian Baker-Finch was not a huge star, but he was a very solid golfer putting together a good career by 1991. In 1989 he won the PGA Tour Colonial tournament; in 1990 he finished 16th on the PGA Tour money list. And then in 1991 he won the British Open by shooting 64-66 over the final two rounds. His future seemed bright indeed.

Be he never again won on the PGA Tour. He did claim victories in his native Australia, but was winless everywhere after 1993. By 1994 Baker-Finch's game was in serious decline, and not long after that it went into freefall. 

The problems were partly physical, with injuries and unsuccessful swing changes. Then, the problems became entirely mental, with the driver yips causing many of IBF's woes. One year when the British Open was played at St. Andrews, Baker-Finch snap-hooked his first drive out of bounds across the 100-yard-wide fairway. By 1997 he had mostly left the game, but decided to play the British Open again. After shooting a first-round 92, he withdrew and, according to some reports, collapsed on the lockerroom floor in tears.

During those years he often looked great on the driving range, and was capable of great golf playing at home with friends, or in money matches with current or former tour pros. He just couldn't do it in a tournament setting, in front of crowds. In 1995-96, he failed to play the weekend at any of the nearly 30 PGA Tour events he entered.

He turned to broadcasting, but made one last PGA Tour appearance at the 2009 Colonial on the 20th anniversary of his win there.

David Duval

David Duval at the 2004 US Open
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From 1997 through 2001, David Duval was on the two or three best golfers in the game — and for a while he briefly held the No. 1 world ranking. He won 13 times in that stretch, shot a 59, won The Players Championship and the 2001 British Open. He also led the tour in money and in scoring.

But the 2001 Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan was his final victory. Duval went winless in 2002, dropped to 80th on the money list and missed eight cuts.

He was suffering from back woes and other physical issues that caused compensations in his swing. And once he lost his swing, Duval never got it back, even when good health returned. In 2003 he missed the cut in 14 of 18 tournaments, in 2004 in six of nine tournaments. He bottomed out in 2005, missing 18 of 19 cuts on the PGA Tour.

Duval kept at it and eventually had a couple close calls at winning, including a runner-up showing at the 2009 U.S. Open. He eventually did manage to climb back into the Top 125 on the money list in 2010, but retired after the 2014 season and turned to broadcasting.

Ralph Guldahl

Ralph Guldahl tees off in 1937.

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Ralph Guldahl is, arguably, the greatest golfer that most (casual) golf fans of today have never heard of. He's in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his collapse is truly mysterious.

From 1937 to 1939, Guldahl won three majors: two U.S. Opens (1937 and '38) and the 1939 Masters. He won three straight Western Opens (1936-38) at a time when the Western Open was the equivalent of a major. In his brief PGA Tour career, Guldahl won 16 tournaments and finished second 19 times.

But after his 1939 Masters victory, things quickly went south. He won a couple times in 1940 (when he turned 29), then ... nothing. Guldahl never won again after 1940. He quit the Tour in 1942, returning only briefly in 1949, but essentially his career was over after the 1940 season.

What happened? Nobody really knows. Guldahl's game just disappeared. One theory that is often quoted is that when Guldahl — who was no technician and had never paid much attention to swing theories — wrote an instructional book, he overnalyzed his swing and, poof, it was gone. "Paralysis by analysis," as the saying goes.

And here's something else interesting about Guldahl: When he quit the Tour in 1942, it was actually the second time he walked away from golf. He joined the PGA Tour in 1932, won a tournament that year, and nearly won the 1933 U.S. Open. He was nine strokes behind eventual winner Johnny Goodman with 11 holes to play, but reached the 18th green needing only to sink a 4-foot putt to force a playoff.

Guldahl missed. And he left the Tour for three years, preferring to sell cars in Dallas.

Guldahl was known as an icy competitor, always appearing in complete control of his emotions. But a quote of his might reveal something about the disappearance of his game: "Behind my so called poker face, I'm burning up."

Johnny McDermott

Johnny McDermott McDermott was the first person born in the United States to win the U.S. Open. At the 1910 U.S. Open, at age 18, McDermott lost in a playoff. But he won back-to-back in 1911 and 1912.

McDermott had a reputation as a braggart, a hothead — he was not well-liked by many of his peers, and he was, according to some reports, haunted by not beating the best British golfers of the time.

His golf career was over by age 23. He never won again after 1913, and fared poorly in most attempts after that point. But with McDermott, we know there were issues of mental health involved.

In fact, in late 1914 (his game was in decline already), following a series of personal, financial and professional setbacks, McDermott had some kind of breakdown. He spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions.

Perhaps with today's diagnostics and drugs, McDermott's quality of life — and golf career — could have been saved. McDermott was a shooting star across the golf world in the years 1910-12, and shortly thereafter, sadly, disappeared forever from the game.

Bill Rogers

Bill Rogers in 1981
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Bill Rogers was on top of the world in 1981: the British Open champ, a 4-time winner on the PGA Tour that season, seven victories total around the world. His play dropped off in the two succeeding years, but in 1983 he won another PGA Tour event.

Five years later he was off the tour. In fact, after 1983 Rogers had only two more Top 10 finishes in his career. His money list finishes from 1984-88 were 134th, 128th, 131st, 174th and 249th. He made only six of 18 cuts in 1985, only three of 15 cuts in 1988.

And after that disastrous 1988 season, Rogers walked away.

What happened to Rogers is something that we actually know well, because Rogers has talked about it. It was that ol' devil, burnout. Following his superstar season of 1981, Rogers traveled the world collecting appearance fees, playing anywhere there was a nice check waiting for him. It was by choice — he wanted that money — but it wound up ruining his career. All the golf, all the travel, just made him want to get back home and get off the golf course.

So, within a few years, his game a shell of what it had been, that's exactly what he did.

Yani Tseng

Yani Tseng during the 2013 Lotte Championship
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From 2008 through 2012, Yani Tseng wasn't just great, she was historically great. When Tseng won the 2011 Women's British Open, it was her fifth win in a major. She was 22 years old. She had won four of the last eight women's majors at that point. And she was the youngest golfer ever, male or female, to reach five wins in majors.

But she hasn't won an LPGA Tour event since 2012. She fell to 38th on the money list in 2013, 54th in 2014. By 2018 she was No. 135, and in 2019 Tseng played only five tournaments on the LPGA, missing the cut badly in all of them.

What happened? Tseng has acknowledged being uncomfortable in the spotlight, feeling the pressure of being No. 1. As King Henry IV said (at least according to Shakespeare), uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. A few bad results snowballed into a crisis of confidence, and it appears by this point Tseng won't get it back.