The Worst Golf Chokes and Collapses

Jean Van de Velde in the Barry Burn at the 1999 British Open
This is not a good look. (Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open.). David Cannon/Getty Images

Choking is something that every golfer, even the greatest golfers (well, except for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods), does at one time or another. Sometimes, the pressure just gets to you and you can't execute the shots you want to hit, or you start making poor decisions.

When those breakdowns happen late in big tournaments, they are remembered for a long time to come. The collapses discussed here are such animals.

Key Takeaways

  • A golf choke happens when nerves get the better of a player, whose swing deserts him or her under the pressure of trying to win. A golf choke means bad golf shots at the worst possible times in a tournament.
  • Our list of famous golf chokes includes the names of some of the greatest golfers in the sport's history, proving that almost no golfers are immune to pressure.
  • However, two golfers who never suffered a famous choke in their careers are the two greatest of all-time: Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

Ranking the Biggest Chokes in Golf History

Following are our picks for the 10 worst chokes or collapses in golf history. We count them down from No. 10 to No. 1. (And after that you'll a few more famous ones.)

10. Lorena Ochoa, 2005 U.S. Wo​men's Open
Ochoa hit one of the worst drives ever at a critical time in a major tournament. It happened on the 18th hole at the 2005 U.S. Women's Open. She had rallied throughout the day from well back and was in a position to win, or at least get into a playoff.

The 18th hole at Cherry Hills required the players to aim right, cutting off part of a lake and carrying the ball to the fairway. Ochoa's drive never even sniffed land.

Her driver hit the ground a couple inches behind the ball — taking a divot — then bounced up into the ball. The ball shot left and dove into the water. To make matters worse, Ochoa's second drive found the rough, then her approach to the green went into the grandstands. She quadruple-bogeyed No. 18 and finished four shots back.

9. Ed Sneed, 1979 Masters
Sneed was a solid player for many years and the 1979 Masters was his best shot at a major. He began the final round with a five-stroke lead and kept a lead of at least several strokes through most of the day.

Then, things fell apart. With a three-shot lead and three holes to play, Sneed proceeded to bogey the 16th, 17th, and 18th holes.

His par putts on 16 and 17 stopped right on the lip. On No. 18, Sneed again came agonizingly close. The par would have won him a Green Jacket. But with a bogey — and a 76 total for the fourth round — Sneed fell into a playoff, which he lost to Fuzzy Zoeller.

8. Phil Mickelson, 2006 U.S. Open
Mickelson started his career 0-for-46 in majors, then changed his approach. He dialed back the aggression and started making much better course management decisions. And it paid off: He entered the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot going for his fourth career major and third in a row.

And he almost got it. But then he reverted to his previous form. His driver deserted him all through the final round (he even hit into a trash can on No. 17), yet he kept hitting it, and his decision-making deserted him on the final hole.

Mickelson had a one-stroke lead as he stood on the 18th tee. Despite hitting only two fairways all day, he pulled the driver again. And again, he missed — only this time badly, his drive hitting the roof of a hospitality tent and bounding into the spectator area.

Mickelson had a decent lie, but a bad idea. Rather than advancing the ball a short distance but getting it back in the fairway — where he might make par the hard way, or, at worse, bogey to get into a playoff in which he'd be the heavy favorite — Mickelson attempted a huge slice under and around tree branches. It didn't work. The ball hit a branch and stopped 25 yards in front of him.

He hit another big slice, but this one plugged in a back bunker, and not even Mickelson's short-game magic could save him from there. He double-bogeyed and finished one shot out of a playoff.

"I am such an idiot," he succinctly said afterward.

7. Mark Calcavecchia, 1991 Ryder Cup
One of the more painful collapses to watch, with the Ryder Cup pressure appearing to almost suffocate Calcavecchia's game.

Known as the "War on the Shore," the 1991 Ryder Cup was intense from the start. The Americans failed to gain the Cup in the three previous competitions, something Team USA wasn't used to (at that time, anyway) and didn't like. A lot of tough rhetoric preceded this Ryder Cup, and tension was heavy throughout.

Calcavecchia's singles match was against Colin Montgomerie, and Calc looked in great shape: he was dormie, four-up with four holes to play. A win or even just a halve by Calc on any of the final four holes would win the Cup for America.

You know what happened: Calcavecchia lost all four holes and halved the match. The stretch included a tee shot on the par-3 17th at The Ocean Course that was very close to a shank, Calcavecchia's ball plopping into the water. That happened after Monty, who was struggling himself, had already put his own tee ball in the water. Amazingly, Calcavecchia reached the 17th green with a chance to halve the hole (and win the Ryder Cup) with a double bogey — but he missed the 2-foot putt.

Thinking he had lost the Ryder Cup for Team USA, Calcavecchia walked away from the 18th green, down onto the beach, sank into the sand and cried.

But he was saved from permanent goat status when Bernhard Langer missed a six-foot par putt on the final hole of the Cup, halving with Hale Irwin and allowing the U.S. to win back the Cup.

6. Adam Scott, 2012 British Open
Scott had always been one of those golfers with a sweet swing, consistently good results, and the mystery of why had hadn't yet won a major. He appeared poised to finally get that major at the 2012 British Open, which he opened by shooting 64 in the first round.

Scott began the final round with a four-stroke lead and appeared in control throughout the final round. As he stood on the 15th tee, Scott held a four-stroke lead and was five ahead of Ernie Els. Just after Scott striped a perfect drive on 15, Els, a couple groups ahead, made a birdie on the 16th to get within four.

It all went south from there for Scott. He bogeyed the last four holes, while Els rallied, including a birdie on the last, to beat Scott by one. Scott didn't blow up on any of the last four holes, he just made simple mistakes on each one: At the 15th, his approach shot found a bunker; on the 16th, he missed a three-foot par putt; on the 17th, his approach was long and found foot-high rough behind the green; on the 18th, his tee ball rolled into a pot bunker.

Scott played out sideways from that bunker, then hit a great approach — but missed the seven-foot par putt that would have forced a playoff. (Scott did finally win a major at the 2013 Masters.)

5. Scott Hoch, 1989 Masters
Hoch was an excellent player for a long time but one without a major championship. He should have won the 1989 Masters, but didn't.

Hoch led Nick Faldo by one at No. 17, but missed a relatively short par putt and fell back into a tie. Hoch's and Faldo's scores matched on No. 18, so they went to a sudden-death playoff.

On the first hole of the playoff — No. 10 at Augusta National — Faldo struggled to a bogey 5. Hoch was left with a birdie putt — he could two-putt and win the Masters.

Hoch three-putted. His birdie putt rolled a short distance past the cup, a distance variously reported as from 18 inches to 30 inches. The par putt Hoch had left was definitely no more than 2 1/2 feet, however.

But Hoch might have worked himself into "paralysis by analysis." For this little putt, he spent two minutes looking at it from every side, studying every possible break. When he finally stepped up to the ball, he wound up backing off, unable to decide if he should hit it firm and straight, or hit it softly to play a small amount of break.

Finally, he hit it firmly — but also played the break. A bad combination. And on a 2 1/2-foot putt, he rapped the ball five feet past the hole.

Hoch made that comebacker to keep the playoff going, but he missed his chance to win the Masters. Faldo sank a 25-footer on the next hole for the victory.

4. Sam Snead, 1947 U.S. Open
The great Slammin' Sam won a record 82 PGA Tour events in his long and glorious career, including seven majors. But he never won the U.S. Open, and his 1947 playoff loss is just one of four runner-up finishes in the event for Snead.

In 1939, Snead needed to par the final hole to win the U.S. Open but made a triple-bogey. In 1947, Snead needed a birdie to get into a playoff and snaked in an 18-footer to do just that.

The 18-hole playoff was with Lew Worsham, and Snead had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play. But he gave both those strokes back and the pair approached No. 18 tied.

Both Snead and Worsham reached the No. 18 green in two and were faced with very short putts of similar lengths for birdies. Snead's putt was only 2 1/2 feet in length, and he took his address to putt first.

But as Snead was about to putt, Worsham interrupted and stopped play. He wasn't sure whether Snead was away and wanted a measurement to determine who should putt first.

Was it gamesmanship, or a genuine concern over an order of play? I haven't read any accounts that make that clear. But regardless, after measurements were taken, it was ruled that Snead was away after all.

The Slammer took his putting stance again ... and missed. Worsham made his putt for the victory. Snead had blown a two-stroke lead with three holes to play, a 2 1/2-foot putt on the final hole, and another chance to win the U.S. Open.

3. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters
No other golfer of his generation — perhaps no other golfer, period — had a career that combined bad luck with sometimes bad nerves in critical situations. Norman seemed snakebit, and he also blew his share of tournaments. Still, his career was stellar: 20 wins and two majors. A definite Hall of Famer.

The Masters was the tournament he wanted more than any other. Jack Nicklaus was his hero, and Nicklaus had six green jackets — beating Norman by a stroke for one of them. Norman had come close at Augusta before, and 1996 seemed like his year to finally win it.

Norman played great over the first three rounds of the 1996 Masters, including a course-record 63 in the first round. He entered the final round with a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo.

But from the start, Norman's game was off, and Faldo's was on fire. Norman's lead disappeared quickly, and he never regained it. While Faldo was en route to a 67, Norman was on his way to five bogeys and two double-bogeys. When he put his tee shot in the water on No. 12, Norman's fate seemed sealed, and the remaining holes had the feeling of a funeral procession.

When it was over, Norman had shot 78 to Faldo's 67, turning a six-shot lead into a five-stroke deficit. Norman was never again a serious contender in a major.

"I made a lot of mistakes today," Norman said afterward, gracious in defeat. "I put all the blame on myself. You pay the price. That's all there is to it." He later added, "All these hiccups I have, they must be for a reason. All this is just a test. I just don't know what the test is yet."

2. Jean Van de Velde, 1999 British Open
Van de Velde was a journeyman player on the European Tour, not a golfer who had much experience playing near the top of major championship leaderboards.

But any Tour golfer who needs only a double-bogey on the last hole to win should be able to do better than Van de Velde did on Sunday on No. 18 at Carnoustie at the 1999 British Open.

Trying to become the first Frenchman to win the Open Championship since 1907, Van de Velde reached the 18th tee with a three-stroke lead. It seemed as if the tournament was already over.

Then Van de Velde compounded bad shots with bad decisions and the rest, as they say, is history.

Along the way to a triple-bogey, Van de Velde found the rough, the sand, the water and even the grandstands.

Following a mediocre drive that rolled into the rough, the smart decision would have been to lay up in front of Barry Burn, which crossed in front of the green.

Instead, Van de Velde went for the green. And instead, he found the grandstands. The ball caromed off the grandstands, bounded onto rocks along the edge of Barry Burn, and bounced into thick rough short of the water hazard.

Van de Velde tried to hack the ball out of the rough and over the burn to the green, but the ball plopped down into the burn. Then came the enduring image of this meltdown: Van de Velde, shoes off, climbing down into the flowing water of the burn, considering trying to hit the ball out.

He ultimately thought better of that and dropped behind the burn. This time he scooped the shot and the ball wound up short, in a greenside bunker. Van de Velde blasted out, then sank the putt for triple-bogey. He'd blown the Open Championship, and made the meltdown complete by losing the playoff to Paul Lawrie.

1. Arnold Palmer, 1966 U.S. Open
At the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer began the final round seven shots behind, then won.

At the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Palmer had a seven-shot lead in the final round ... and lost.

Palmer started the fourth round three shots better than Billy Casper, and when the players made the turn, Palmer had stretched his lead to seven strokes.

But then Casper went on a tear (shooting 32 on the back nine) and Palmer cooled off. Arnie gave up a stroke on the 10th, then lost another on the 13th. The players halved the 14th, so to speak, which left Palmer with a five-stroke lead with four holes to play.

And Casper completely erased that lead over the next three holes. Palmer gave two back at the 15th, then gave up another two on the 16th. When Palmer bogeyed the 17th, the entire seven-stroke lead was gone. Palmer and Casper were tied.

Palmer staggered home but managed to tie Casper on the 18th, forcing an 18-hole playoff the following day.

And once again, in the playoff, Palmer let a lead slip away. Arnie was up by two in the playoff with eight holes to go but gave up six shots over the remaining holes. Casper won the playoff, 69 to 73, and the U.S. Open.

Palmer didn't play as poorly, overall, in the fourth round of the 1966 U.S. Open as did Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters. Norman shot 78 that day, while Palmer posted the very respectable score of 71.

In some respects, what happened to Palmer in 1966 might not even qualify as a "collapse." Can you really call a round of 71 a "collapse"?

And yet, Palmer's faltering in the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open was even worse than the Shark's because, well, because he's Arnie — a greater player than Norman, one of the greats. But mostly because Palmer lost a seven-shot lead entirely on the back nine, and then compounded the blunder by losing another lead in the ensuing 18-hole playoff.

Casper deserves a tremendous amount of credit for winning this championship, probably more credit for winning the title than Palmer deserves blame for losing it. Casper went out and shot a 68, with a sizzling 32 on the back nine.

But consider it a measure of Palmer's greatness and mystique that we're putting this episode No. 1 on our list of worst golf chokes and collapses. It's easy to imagine, say, Jean Van de Velde or Greg Norman blowing a big lead with a few holes to play.

But Arnie? Losing a seven-shot lead over the final nine holes of a U.S. Open? That's a collapse, all right.

Plus a Few More Famous Golf Chokes

Even the great Bobby Jones tried to choke away a win. At the 1929 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Jones blew up with a 79 in the final round that included a pair of 7s. He had to make a curling 12-footer on the final hole just to tie Al Espinosa, forcing a playoff. How do you turn what might be remembered as a choke into a U.S. Open victory for the ages? Do what Jones did: in the 36-hole playoff, Jones beat Espinosa by 23 strokes. The following golfers did not erase the damage of their blowups:

Denny Shute, 1933 Ryder Cup: The American and British teams were tied, with only one match still on the course: American Denny Shute vs. Briton Syd Easterbrook. The two were all-square coming to the final hole, but Shute had the upper hand: He was looking at a 20-foot birdie putt to win the Ryder Cup. But several minutes later, Shute had three-putted, missing a comebacker of 3-5 feet and giving Great Britain the victory.

Sam Snead, 1939 U.S. Open: Snead reached the final hole, a par-5, needing a par to win the tournament. But Snead believed he needed a birdie to win, and played aggressively. When his drive found the rough, Snead couldn't recover and wound up with a triple-bogey 8. He finished in a tie for fifth.

Ben Hogan, 1946 Masters: When Herman Keiser reached the final green, he held a one-stroke lead over Hogan, playing a couple groups behind Keiser's. Keiser proceeded to three-putt, falling into a tie. But not to worry, because when Hogan reached the green, still tied for the lead, he also three-putted. After rolling his birdie putt for the win past the hole, Hogan's two-footer for par didn't even touch the cup.

Arnold Palmer, 1961 Masters: Gary Player and Arnold Palmer battled back-and-forth every round of the tournament until the 1961 Masters was decided by the back bunker on the 18th green. Player's approach to the final green found that bunker, but he got up and down to finish at 8-under. When Palmer, leading by one, approached the green moments later, he, too, found the back bunker. But Arnie's blast out sent the ball flying over the green, through the crowd and down the slope near a TV tower. Palmer pitched back up to the green, but the ball rolled 15 feet past the pin. He missed the putt, scored a double-bogey, and Player became the first non-American to win the Masters.

Doug Sanders, 1970 British Open: Sanders is another player who was very good throughout his long career — 20 PGA Tour wins — but never won a major. He would have won the 1970 British Open had he parred the final hole. Instead, he bogeyed to fall into a tie with Jack Nicklaus, then Nicklaus beat him in the playoff. Sanders' approach to the 72nd green left him 30 feet above the hole. All he needed was a two-putt. His first putt stopped three feet from the cup. After taking his address, Sanders was distracted at the last moment by something in the line. "Without changing the position of my feet I bent down to pick it up," Sanders said later, "but it was a piece of brown grass. I didn't take the time to move away and get re-organized." Without backing off the putt, he went back into the address position and struck the ball. It slid just over the right lip. As soon as he struck the ball, Sanders' body began moving forward, and he reached out to the ball as if to try to bring it back for a do-over. But there was no do-over.

Hubert Green, 1978 Masters: Green came to the final hole at Augusta more than a half-hour after Gary Player had finished a round of 64. Player had a one-shot lead over Green, who hit a good drive and then a great approach to within three feet of the cup. It looked like there would be a playoff. But Green had to back away from the putt when he heard a radio announcer calling the action. When Green took the stroke, he pushed it a little to the right and the three-footer slid by. Green missed the playoff and Player won the Green Jacket.

Hale Irwin, 1983 British Open: This one rarely shows up on lists of chokes, because Irwin's gaffe didn't come in the closing holes. Still, it's a brain-freeze of epic proportions, one that wound up costing Irwin a spot in a playoff. Irwin was on the leaderboard when he missed a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 14 in the third round. He was a little upset at the effort, and when he went to tap in the putt — which was just a couple inches from the cup — he whiffed. That's right, he completely missed the ball, trying to jab it into the cup. He wound up finishing one shot behind eventual winner Tom Watson.

Greg Norman, 1986 Masters: Norman played great down the stretch and was tied for the lead with Jack Nicklaus as the Shark played No. 18. However, his approach to the green sailed way right and into the grandstands. He dropped and pitched toward the hole, then barely missed a 10-foot part putt to fall out of a playoff.

Patty Sheehan, 1990 U.S. Women's Open: The Hall-of-Famer was in the midst of a great year, a year in which she won a career-best five tournaments. And for most of the week, it looked like the U.S. Women's Open would be another victory. Sheehan had a 12-shot lead early in the third round. But she wound up giving it all back, shooting a 76 on the final day to lose to Betsy King by a stroke. Sheehan played the last 33 holes at 9-over.

Jay Haas, 1995 Ryder Cup: Another of the worst drives under pressure was one by Haas here. The outcome of the 1995 Ryder Cup hinged on Haas' singles match against Philip Walton. Haas trailed by three with three holes to play, but he holed out from a bunker to win No. 16, then won No. 17 with a par. On the 18th tee, needing another win to give the Americans the Cup, Haas hit what Johnny Miller called "one of the strangest shots I've ever seen." It was a pop-up, yanked well left and into the woods, that traveled perhaps only 150 yards. Walton was able to two-putt for bogey to win the match for Team Europe. "You know you're choking when your pop-ups start going crooked," Miller said on the television broadcast.

Thomas Bjorn, 2003 British Open: Bjorn led Ben Curtis by three strokes with four holes to play. But he dropped a stroke at the 15th, then disaster struck on the par-3 16th at Royal St. George's. Bjorn put his tee shot into a deep greenside bunker. When he attempted to blast out, the ball caught an upslope on the green and couldn't quite get over the hump. It rolled right back down into the bunker. Bjorn tried again ... and the same thing happened. Finally, on his third attempt, he got the ball out. But he made double-bogey to fall into a tie, then bogeyed the 17th to complete the collapse.

Tom Watson, 2009 British Open: Had the 60-year-old Watson won this tournament, it would be remembered as perhaps the greatest feat in golf history. Watson hadn't won a major in more than 20 years; he would have been, by far, the oldest major champion ever. Instead, he hit one of the worst putts ever seen at the worst possible moment — when he needed a par on the last hole to win. Watson missed that short par putt on the 72nd hole with a truly terrible stroke; it was more like a full-body heave than a golf motion. Watson then played poorly in the playoff and lost the Claret Jug to Stewart Cink.

Rory McIlroy, 2011 Masters: The young Irish phenom began the final round with a four-stroke lead. But he fell apart beginning on the 10th tee, eventually finishing with an 80 to drop to 15th place. His drive on No. 10 wound up between two of Augusta National's cabins, deep in the woods — a part of the course that might never have been shown on television before. He triple-bogeyed that hole and followed it with a bogey on the 11th and a double-bogey on the 12th.

I.K. Kim, 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship: Kim reached the final green of this LPGA major with a one-stroke lead over the leader in the clubhouse, and a two-stroke edge over the only player still on the course within striking distance of her. And she had a birdie putt. She missed the birdie putt, running it about a foot past the hole. No big deal, just tap it in for par and Kim is almost certainly the champion. Instead, Kim missed that one-foot comebacker, making bogey and dropping into a tie with Sun Young Yoo. Kim seemed astounded at the miss (it was certainly an astounding miss to onlookers), which didn't even touch the hole. Still clearly shaken, Kim went on to lose in a playoff to Yoo.

Jordan Spieth, 2016 Masters: Spieth appeared to be cruising to his second consecutive Masters title: He birdied the final four holes of the front nine to take a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play. Bogeys on the 10th and 11th didn't appear too worrying. But then, disaster: Spieth chunked two balls into the water on the par-3 12th and wound up with a quadruple-bogey 7. In a stretch of three holes, he lost six shots and dropped from five ahead to three behind. He lost by two.