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Being 54-hole leader no guarantee of victory

Keegan Bradley plays a shot on the 16th

Keegan Bradley plays a shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational. (Aug. 5, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- There are three perils that golfers can hope to avoid in the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday: getting caught in an inevitable afternoon thunderstorm, being besieged by indigenous insects and -- most important of all, based on results so far in 2012 -- holding the lead after three rounds.

Being in front has been the most dangerous spot on this year's PGA Tour, where the 54-hole leader or co-leader has won only 10 times in 33 tournaments. Leaders have been falling like the rain on Kiawah's Ocean Course. This has been especially pronounced in the three previous majors, with the respective champions having come from three, four and six shots back on the final day.

In the U.S. and British Opens, the eventual winner never led for one minute while he was on the course. Webb Simpson and Ernie Els employed the most effective strategy of 2012: get to the clubhouse as quickly as you can and let the others crumble.

"I don't think it's quite explainable why it's happening," said Keegan Bradley, the former St. John's golfer who previewed this trend at last year's PGA when he won after having trailed by five with three holes to go. He also won the Bridgestone Invitational this past Sunday when Jim Furyk, a wire-to-almost-wire leader, double-bogeyed the final hole.

"Any time you have a lead and somebody is making a move on you, it's going to be difficult," Bradley said. "Now you've got guys coming from behind and really putting it to the guy who's leading, and I think you're seeing the guys feeling it a little bit. From what I've seen, the guys in second place have looked freed up and shooting really low numbers."

Simpson, who surpassed former U.S. Open champions Furyk and Graeme McDowell to become one himself, said, "I think it was a perfect spot for me to be in because, in a major, I've never been in the last group. It's a tough position to win in, being the leader, being chased."

When they are asked about this topic, tour players inevitably remark on how Kyle Stanley blew a seven-stroke lead at Torrey Pines in January then overcame an eight-shot deficit to win at Phoenix a week later. Maybe it is the parity on tour, maybe it is the pressure of bigger stakes. In any case, players basically just shrug at it.

"You know, every year has a certain trend and this year it just seems the trend is that it's hard to hold onto the lead," said Rory McIlroy, who coughed up a big lead at the 2011 Masters and then held onto one to win the U.S. Open two months after that. "I don't think there's any theory behind it, or that you can think too much into it.

"Coming down the stretch, it is your tournament to win if you have a lead, but it's also your tournament to lose," McIlroy said, adding that the pressure can be a sudden shock to the system. "A little bit like me at the Masters. I felt completely in control over the first three days, stepped up on the first tee box on Sunday and didn't feel in control. It's just the way it goes."

So you'd think someone would yank a two-foot putt on purpose late Saturday, at least for the rest of this year, right? Not quite.

Simpson said what other golfers have expressed: "If you ask me, would I want a one-shot lead or be one back, I'd still take a one-shot lead."

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