Halloween special: golf’s biggest nightmares

31st Oct 2023

golfing nightmares

We mere mortals have very likely had our fair share of golfing nightmares. Luckily for us, there’s usually not much more at stake than bragging rights or perhaps a club championship. The hurt is real, but life goes on.

When things go wrong for top professionals, though, it can be a very different matter. Major championships can be won and lost. Livelihoods and legacies are at risk. In some situations, slight mistakes can even make or break the hopes of entire continents.

It is precisely those types of golfing nightmares that we’re considering today as we highlight 10 of the most ruinous shots, moments and meltdowns in the sport’s history. Read on, if you dare


10. Tiger’s treble shock (2003 Open Championship)

Tiger Woods made the most un-Tiger-like start imaginable to the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George’s. Looking mildly peeved to be teeing off in drizzle after days of glorious sunshine at the historic south-coast links, Tiger took an almighty swipe at his opening tee shot – and saw his ball swallowed up by the knee-length rough wide right of the fairway.

Amazingly, spotters had failed to follow the ball flight in the air leading to a desperate, fruitless search for the world number one’s errant drive. When his five-minute search time elapsed, Woods faced the ignominy of a lonely trudge back to the tee to reload – also finding the rough with his third shot. He eventually carded a treble-bogey seven.

This high-profile howler would come back to haunt Woods as he ultimately finished the championship two strokes adrift of Ben Curtis, who remains one of the least heralded Major champions in golf history.


9. Quad finish derails Ochoa (2005 US Women’s Open)

Mexican sensation Lorena Ochoa stood on the 18th tee of the final round of the 2005 US Women’s Open knowing that a par would very likely grant her the title she craved above all others.

Three-under for her round on a typically punishing US Open layout, the three-time LPGA Tour winner had made four birdies on her back nine and looked more than ready to make that step up to Major champion.

That hope was crushed after her tee shot went straight left into a lake and her third found deep rough on the right. Ochoa hacked her way to a quadruple-bogey eight and would finish four back from winner Birdie Kim. Ochoa would go on to win two Majors amongst her 30 career wins, but the US Women’s Open remained elusive.


8. Mike Reasor’s 123 (1974 Tallahassee Open)

Even a bungling beginner would hope to break 120, making PGA Tour pro Mike Reasor’s third-round score of 123 in the 1974 Tallahassee Open hard to fathom – on paper, at least.

A journeyman pro, Reasor played on the PGA Tour from 1969 to 1978, racking up 10 career top-10 finishes. At Tallahassee, Reasor got off to a reasonable start, being level par for two rounds to comfortably make the cut. After that, he opted to go on a relaxing horse ride, which proved to be a near-catastrophic decision as his horse went berserk and ran its rider into a tree. Reasor suffered torn rib cartilage, damaged knee ligaments and a separated left shoulder.

However, due to a tour ruling in place at the time, Reasor would only have been exempt for the following week’s tour event if he made the cut and completed all four rounds. So, instead of withdrawing and seeking urgent medical attention, Reasor battled on into the weekend.

He played the third round swinging with just his right arm. The only clubs he used that day were his putter and a 5-iron as he literally limped to a 51-over-par 123. By comparison, his final round was much better as Reasor blazed round in ‘just’ 114 blows – posting a 93-over-par 381 72-hole total.

While heroic, Reasor’s decision to play on can only be considered foolhardy in hindsight. His injuries meant that he had to withdraw from the following week’s event anyway and he wouldn’t tee it up on tour again for more than a month.


7. Driving Woosie to despair (2001 Open Championship)

Most golfers swear by their caddie. Ian Woosnam swore at his after discovering bagman Miles Byrne had forgotten to remove an extra driver from his golf bag that he’d been practising with prior to commencing his final round.

To make matters worse, the discovery was made on the 2nd tee, moments after the pint-sized Welshman had got his round off to a dream start with a tap-in birdie at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s par-three opening hole.

The joint leader was hit with a two-stroke penalty for having more than the permitted 14 clubs in the bag and would eventually finish T3rd, four strokes adrift of champion David Duval. He would never again challenge in a Major, while the loss of prize money also denied him a ninth appearance in his beloved Ryder Cup.

Although Woosnam stood by his caddie in the immediate aftermath, he sacked Byrne just two weeks later after the Irishman overslept and missed an early tee-off time at the Scandinavian Masters. The two haven’t spoken since.


6. Monty’s fateful switch (2006 US Open)

Poor Monty. The elusive Major he so richly deserved appeared to be his for the taking after a sensational birdie on the penultimate hole of the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot moved him into a share of the lead.

He then split the fairway with his driver on the tough closing hole leaving him with seemingly one hand on the trophy. Then disaster struck. Monty’s playing partner, Vijay Singh, was involved in a ruling call that lasted more than 10 minutes, leaving the Scotsman with far too much time to think about the position he was in.

When his time came, Montgomery made a fateful last-minute decision to club down from 6-iron to 7-iron, believing his boosted adrenaline level would compensate for the switch. It didn’t. He left his approach a full club short in juicy rough, which was compounded by an overcooked chip and a par putt that raced 10 feet by. Looking shell-shocked, he missed the return and tapped in for a double bogey.

With Phil Mickelson also making double on the last two groups later, it was unfancied Aussie Geoff Ogilvy who would ultimately triumph by one stroke, aided by a chip-in par at the 17th. For Monty, it was his last top 10 in a Major and a finish that haunts him to this day. He remains many critics’ choice as the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major.


5. Scott turns bogeyman (2012 Open Championship)

As a teen, Adam Scott had been moved to tears by watching countryman Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 US Masters. Sadly, he would experience his own Major nightmare at the 2012 Open Championship as he plucked defeat from the jaws of victory on an excruciating final afternoon.

No one had threatened Scott’s third-round lead all day on the final Sunday at Royal Lytham. Nearest challenger Ernie Els made four birdies coming home, but Scott still maintained a four-stroke lead over the South African with four to play.

Consecutive bogeys for Scott at 15 and 16 gave Els a glimmer of hope and when the Aussie added a third at 17 – allied with the Big Easy’s immaculate birdie on 18 – Scott suddenly had it all to do.

Needing a birdie to win outright, Scott found a bunker off the 18th tee and was forced to play out sideways. He held his nerve to fire an approach to eight feet but couldn’t hole the putt. He lost by one.

The nature of Scott’s demise made for painful viewing. This was no crash-and-burn, more a slow and inexorable crawl toward calamity. It is to Scott’s endless credit that he didn’t let this moment define him. He would exorcise the demons nine months later to win the 2013 US Masters.


4. The one that got away (1970 Open Championship)

One of the most colourful characters of his generation, Doug Sanders was also one heck of a player. In an era dominated by Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Watson and Palmer, Sanders won 20 times on the PGA Tour and amassed 13 top-10 finishes in the Majors – including four runner-up spots.

The 1970 Open at St Andrews was really the one that got away for Sanders, though. A par at the 72nd hole of the championship would have been enough to grant him that elusive Major title, although he left himself with a nasty lag putt from the back of the 18th green after playing it safe with his approach. Still, when his first putt trundled to a stop less than three feet from the hole he looked a shoo-in for the title.

Fate decided differently, though. A fly alighted on Sanders’ ball as he lined up his potential winner and though he swatted it away he didn’t step away from the ball to regain his composure. His jabby, stabby putt never troubled the hole, sending Sanders into an 18-hole playoff with Jack Nicklaus, which the Golden Bear won to pick up his 8th Major.

Ever a good sport, Sanders made light of what was dubbed (rather cruelly) as the ‘choke of the century’. When asked if the missed putt ever crossed his mind he would routinely reply: “Not too much. Sometimes five or six minutes can go by in a day without me thinking about it…”


3. Greg’s Masters meltdown (1996 US Masters) 

Car-crash golf in its purest form, Greg Norman converting a six-shot lead into a five-shot loss to Nick Faldo was something the watching world simply couldn’t take its eyes off.

Erratic from his opening tee shot, Norman never seemed fully in control of his game, and with Faldo playing his usual brand of meticulously precise golf, the lead had been whittled down to two by the halfway point of the final round.

A bogey at 10 for Norman reduced the deficit further, but he looked to have steadied the ship when he stood over a makeable birdie putt at the next. However, he shaved the edge of the hole from 12 feet and the returning three-footer also stayed up. Things were level heading to Augusta National’s infamous par-three 12th – but not for long.

With Faldo finding the putting surface with consummate ease, it was a make-or-break tee shot for Norman. Alas, he found the bank short of the green and watched as the ball heart-wrenchingly rolled back into Raes Creek. His subsequent double bogey gave Faldo a two-stroke lead that would eventually stretch to five as Norman came home in 40 strokes.

The Great White Shark would contend at The Masters again, going close once more in 1999, but he never earned the Green Jacket that he coveted above all else.


2. Agony for Langer (1991 Ryder Cup)

Set against the backdrop of the Gulf War, the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island was a bad-tempered, jingoistic affair that saw the European team vilified as enemies from overseas and some US players wearing camouflage army caps in support of their troops in Iraq and to gee up the partisan crowds. The ‘War on the Shore’ was quite the spectacle throughout and, as with all great theatre, its final act proved impossible to forget.

Playing in the crucial final singles match against Hale Irwin, Bernhard Langer fought back from two down with four to play to level the match on the 17th thanks to clutch putting under the greatest of pressure. With all other matches complete, the entire competition would boil down to the final hole of the final match. If Langer won it, Europe would retain the cup. Anything less would see it return to US hands.

Showing stereotypical Germanic poise, Langer found the fairway with his drive on 18, while Irwin pulled his effort 40 yards right but got a suspiciously lucky break after his ball was said to have hit a spectator and ricocheted to the edge of the fairway. However, the American pushed his approach and couldn’t get up and down leaving Langer – on the green in two – knowing that a par four would be enough.

His birdie effort looked good but rolled five feet by leaving the German with a knee-trembler of a putt. His task wasn’t helped by a significant spike mark on his direct putting line. Deciding to putt around the pitch mark and use the break of the green, Langer sent the ball on its way. It brushed the right lip of the hole and stayed up, Langer’s anguished expression and bedeviled body language creating one of the most iconic sporting images of the 20th century.

Although arguably the single most dramatic moment in golf history, it was the cruelest of blows for one of the sport’s good guys. Langer would recover quickly, though. He won his very next event on the European Tour a week later.


1. Van de Velde’s horror show (1999 Open Championship)

It takes something pretty special to blow a three-stroke lead standing on the final tee of the championship, but that’s exactly what mercurial Frenchman Jean Van de Velde produced at the 1999 Open at Carnoustie.

As the watching world pleaded for him to play it safe off the tee, Van de Velde unleashed the big stick and smashed it so far right that his ball ended up on the 17th fairway, albeit in an eminently playable position. That’s where his luck ran out.

Disregarding the notion that discretion is the better part of valour, Van de Velde confidently bypassed his short irons and proceeded to carve a 2-iron approach into a grandstand stanchion on the right of the fairway. This flung his ball back 30 yards into thick rough, from where he duffed it into the infamous Barry Burn amidst howls of despair from the packed galleries.

In scenes that would have graced a French farce, Van de Velde removed shoes and socks and took a paddle in the burn as he contemplated a death or glory play out of the water to avoid a penalty drop. He eventually took the penalty – and fired his fifth shot into a greenside bunker. To his credit, Van de Velde got up and down to take the championship into extra holes, but his swash was well and truly buckled. Scotsman Paul Lawrie won the three-man playoff to land the Claret Jug.

While one has to admire Van de Velde’s courage to play his own game regardless of circumstances, his capitulation has become a case study in what not to do under pressure. If you have the stomach for it, you can watch how it all panned out below…


This is by no means an exhaustive list. Should we have included Arnold Palmer’s collapse at the 1966 US Open, when he threw away a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to play? Where does Patty Sheehan’s inability to hold onto a 12-stroke lead after 39 holes of the 1990 US Women’s Open fit in? And can we ever forget Dustin Johnson’s controversial final-hole penalty at the 2010 USPGA that arguably cost him a first Major title? Your thoughts will be most welcome…

Image credits: Getty Images