KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. - Few golfers are willing to admit it, especially those who perform for millions of dollars at the elite level, but crack open the psyche of just about anyone in the field at the PGA Championship and you'll find the 'choke' reflex is alive and thriving.
Proof rests in the fact that of the 34 tournaments played on the PGA Tour this year, including the three majors already in the books, only 11 third-round leaders have had what it takes to bring home the bacon on Sunday.
Adam Scott became the posterboy for this phenomenon when he maintained his four-shot, 54-hole lead through 14 holes on Sunday in the Open Championship less than a month ago, then bogeyed the last four to lose to Ernie Els.
But Scott is hardly alone. Earlier this season, Peter Hanson led the Masters by a shot after 54 holes and finished third. At the U.S. Open, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell shared the third-round lead but Webb Simpson swept past both men, beating McDowell by five shots and Furyk by six.
"We practice, we dream all our lives and we hit golf balls for hours and hours and hours," McDowell said Wednesday, "to put ourselves in those scenarios but they are uncomfortable. They are not enjoyable. You are very scared, mainly of messing up.
"One of my techniques I use is to keep my chin up -- both of them -- and try to smile. Sometimes I'm smiling but I'm probably hurting under the surface. Some of my most painful stretches of golf holes, as far as enjoyment goes, would be the last 12 at Pebble Beach."
He was referring to his U.S. Open win in 2010. On that Sunday, McDowell quickly overcame a three-shot lead held by Dustin Johnson then grinded through the rest of the day for the win.
At his zenith, Tiger Woods used to revel in taking a lead into the final round, especially in majors. In fact, of his 14 major wins, he has led through 54 holes in each of them.
"I'm not sure if it's even relevant, but I was thinking that there hasn't been someone like Tiger winning 10 times (a year)," Luke Donald said. "Maybe it's given more opportunity for players to have leads going into the final few rounds."
Ernie Els was waiting in the clubhouse as Scott frittered away his lead on the final holes at Royal Lytham three weeks ago.
"I've won a few events, and a lot of times, it's those big leads, that were more nerve-wracking," said Els. "With a one-shot lead, on paper, it's a lead but it's not really a lead, because after one hole, one guy can birdie and you lose your lead.
"When it's a five or six shot lead, you feel the pressure that if you lose now, you've given it up. That's a different taste that's left in your mouth.
"I'm not sure why guys have given up leads this year. We've had some great closers in the past in Mickelson and Woods -- I'm talking about my generation of players. But I think (younger) guys are maybe learning how to win still, and you know, it's a cruel way of learning."
As popular a win as that was for Els, he knows the 2012 Open Championship won't be remembered as much for the winner as for the loser.
"I think you're going to remember what Adam did. There's no two ways about it. And then hopefully people remember the putts that I made, because I still shot 32 on the back nine to give Adam something to think about.
"You know, I think for the short term, probably they are going to think about Adam's mistakes that he made, and I think long term, eventually my name is going to stay on the Jug," Els said with a chuckle.
Few have turned a public disaster into victory as quickly as Rory McIlroy, who threw up all over himself in the final round of the 2011 Masters when he lost a four-shot lead on the front nine. A month later, he lapped the field, winning the U.S. Open wire-to-wire, in a tour de force.
"Yeah, coming down the stretch, it is your tournament to win if you have a lead, but it's also your tournament to lose," said McIlroy. "It's hard. It's hard to win. It's hard to hold onto leads. At the Masters, I felt completely in control over the first three days, stepped up on the first tee box on the Sunday and didn't feel in control. So it was a bit of a shock. I was like, wow, this feels a bit different.
"Again, same with Adam at The Open. It's just been a strange season like that, and I don't know if there's any way to explain it. It's tough to win out here, and every time you do win, you can't take it for granted."
For his part, Scott is talking a good game as he heads into Thursday's opening round of the PGA Championship, willing himself to pull a McIlroy reversal out of the hat.
"If I can channel some of that energy that I had going at The Open week and the feelings in my golf swing, then this is a great chance for me to kind of get the victory after a tough loss," said Scott.
Could happen. But here's a little advice, Adam. Let somebody else set the pace.