Remember this: At the Masters, no lead is safe

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Remember this: At the Masters, no lead is safe

From Comcast SportsNet
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- The seven shots Rory McIlroy took on the 10th hole last year at the Masters remain a blur. So was the rest of his final round at Augusta National, where the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland made the wrong kind of history. He started with a four-shot lead. He finished 10 shots behind after an 80, the highest closing round by a 54-hole leader in 56 years. If nothing else, it was a reminder how tenuous a lead can be in the final round. Especially at the Masters. "It's a course that makes you really nervous," Geoff Ogilvy said. There is an art to playing Augusta, which explains why nearly 40 percent of the Masters have been won by eight players. For those seeking their first green jacket, let alone their first major, finishing it off can be a challenge. Greg Norman lost a record six-shot lead in 1996. Ed Sneed had a five-shot lead in 1979, and was still three shots clear with three holes remaining when he made three straight bogeys and lost in a playoff. Ken Venturi was on the verge of becoming the only amateur to win the Masters in 1956 when he blew a four-shot lead. Like McIlroy, he shot an 80. McIlroy's blown lead is enough of a memory going into the Masters. Adding to the emphasis is a bad habit of 54-hole leaders failing to win this year on the PGA Tour. Kyle Stanley had a three-shot lead playing the final hole at Torrey Pines when he spun a wedge into the water and three-putted for a triple bogey, losing to Brandt Snedeker in a playoff. A week later, Spencer Levin had a six-shot lead in the Phoenix Open when his game imploded on the back nine. He shot 75 and Stanley -- of all people -- rallied from eight shots behind to beat him. Charlie Wi lost a three-shot lead at Pebble Beach and Phil Mickelson won with a 64. The next week at Riviera, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley shared the 54-hole lead and both wound up losing to Bill Haas in a playoff. In 14 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour, only five players have gone on to win with at least a share of the third-round lead. With that kind of history, protecting a lead is not easy. "Not even close to easy, as we've seen," Nick Faldo said. He should know. Faldo is the only player with multiple Masters wins who has never had the lead going into the last day. Along with his win over Norman in 1996, he came from five shots down in 1989 and three shots behind in 1990, both times winning in a playoff. "That's the beauty of the Masters," Faldo said. "We come back every year, all those stories are compounded, from victory and failure. That's what makes it so special. The players will be reminded of it. Anything more than three or four shots, and you're making assumptions. If you were to carry a decent lead into Sunday, you'd need a steel-trap mind to survive." That was never a problem for Tiger Woods. He was either leading or tied going into the final round in all four of his Masters wins -- along with his other 10 majors. Woods never saw it as a burden, though. "The beauty of having a lead is that you can make those mistakes and still win," Woods said. "But the only problem is if some guys make a run and they get some momentum going, and you're going the other way, you give them a big shot of energy. You've seen some of these guys pull off some pretty low rounds. It doesn't take much. If you get off to a poor start and the other guy gets off to a quick start, four or five shots can be made up in a few holes." That's how it was for Woods last year, but only for half of his round. He made up a seven-shot deficit in nine holes, going out in 31 with a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch on the front nine as McIlroy stalled. Woods wasn't alone, of course. Charl Schwartzel started his round with a chip across the green for an improbable birdie, and holing a wedge from the third fairway for eagle. Three holes into the final round, McIlroy's lead already was gone. Jack Nicklaus never coughed up the lead going into the last round at a major, although twice he failed to win when he was tied -- at Turnberry in his epic duel with Tom Watson in 1977, and at Augusta when Charles Coody beat him in 1971. Even so, he remains annoyed at a blown opportunity in the 77 Masters, when he was tied with Watson and in the group right in front of his newest rival. He had 156 yards to the pin when he heard a big roar from behind -- Watson made birdie. "I changed my thought pattern, and I shouldn't have," Nicklaus said. "I had a 6-iron in my hand, planning to play it by the hole to the right and have that 15-foot putt right of the hole to win the golf tournament. I tried to stuff it in, hit it fat, hit in the bunker and let Watson play the last hole any way he wanted, which was really stupid. "I mean, here I am, 37 years old, and I still make a dumb mistake like that," said Nicklaus, who made bogey and lost by two when Watson took par on the 18th. "It's one of the few that I can turn around and kick myself for what I did." Stuart Appleby's demise at the Masters began early in 2007. He had a comfortable lead until taking a triple bogey on the 17th hole of the third round. With a one-shot lead over Woods on Sunday, he started with a tee shot into the trees for a double bogey. Appleby rallied to rejoin the lead until a 7-iron into the water on the 12th. Woods wasn't much better, and Zach Johnson wound up winning. "It's not 18 holes of golf, it's 18 holes of emotion," Appleby said. "If you can keep your emotions in check at a high level, you will be a world-class player. When you see a player struggling to finish, it's purely not keeping your emotions in check." McIlroy was that kind of player last year. When he looked back on tape, he noticed that he was looking at the ground, not walking with his head up and that boyish bounce in his step. He believes now he wasn't ready to win a major. Boy Wonder atoned for that quickly. Two months later, he became a major champion with a record win at the U.S. Open. Perhaps it was only appropriate that of all the text messages and phone calls of support in the days after the Masters, the most meaningful was a call from Norman. "It was great coming from him, because I'm sure he knew how I felt," McIlroy said. "He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup. I've said this before, but create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and don't let any of the outside interference come into that." Received 040412 08:02 am ET

Key Giants lefty reliever Smith sidelined by elbow inflammation

Key Giants lefty reliever Smith sidelined by elbow inflammation

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- For years, the Giants would give Sergio Romo time off during spring training to make sure his tender elbow would be ready for opening day. Romo is now a Dodger, but one of the men tasked with replacing those eighth-inning outs has been shut down. 

Will Smith won't throw for about a week because of inflammation in his left elbow. Manager Bruce Bochy said an MRI came back clean, but Smith won't pitch in a game for two to three weeks. The Giants are confident, however, that Smith will be ready for opening day. Because of the long spring, the staff has mapped out a schedule where Smith can return and make six spring appearances before the regular season. 

Any setbacks would strike a big blow to the bullpen. Smith, 27, is supposed to be a key part of the revamped group. The Giants acquired him at the deadline last season hoping he turns into the next Jeremy Affeldt, a lefty capable of facing left- and right-handed hitters.

After a slow start in San Francisco last August, Smith ended the regular season with 18 consecutive scoreless appearances. The Giants entered camp with Smith set to share the eighth-inning role with right-handers Derek Law and Hunter Strickland.

Paraag Marathe: My job is to stay in my lane, help the coach and GM

Paraag Marathe: My job is to stay in my lane, help the coach and GM

SANTA CLARA – As team executives Jed York and Paraag Marathe traveled the country during the 49ers’ search to fill their head coach and general manager positions, there was plenty of criticism that followed them at every stop.

York, the CEO, has been held accountable by the local media and on social media, as he publicly welcomed, in recent seasons when the 49ers fell from the NFC Championship game to 8-8, 5-11 and 2-14 under three different head coaches.

A year ago, Marathe officially was replaced as team president and became the 49ers’ chief strategy officer and executive vice president of football operations. His duties with the football team have not changed.

In fact, York and Marathe roles with the organization took on a much-greater significance after the decision was made to fire coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke.

The 49ers interviewed six head-coach candidates and 10 individuals who were considered for the general manager position.

Along the way, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels bowed out, likely because his top choice to be his general manager partner, Nick Caserio, opted to remain as the Patriots’ chief of personnel. Then-Kansas City executive Chris Ballard declined an interview and another serious candidate, Green Bay’s Brian Gutekunst, removed his name from consideration to remain with the Packers on a new contract.

After more than a month, the 49ers finalized the hirings of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, who officially accepted the job the day after the Atlanta Falcons’ crushing defeat in Super Bowl 51.

“Nothing speaks better to the process than the quality of the two men that we hired,” Marathe told CSNBayArea.com. “I can’t tell you, just in the last two weeks even, how inspiring it’s been to be at work, just seeing these guys work together and how they’ve already transformed the building.”

Marathe joined the “49ers Insider Podcast” for a wide-ranging interview that touched on his personal life, as well as his responsibilities during his 16 years with the 49ers. The entire 43-minute podcast can be heard here.

Marathe has remained behind the scenes working for the 49ers mostly on contract and salary-cap matters. There has been mystery about his role while working with head coaches Steve Mariucci, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula, Kelly and, now, Shanahan.

At one point during the search, Pro Football Talk, citing “thinking inside league circles,” described Marathe as being viewed as an “impediment” to the 49ers' ability to attract top candidates for their openings.

“It’s unfortunate that’s out there, if that’s out there,” Marathe said. “I won't say it’s something that doesn’t bother me at all. Of course, it stings. But I do know, I try to keep my head down and do a good job and support the people who are here. All I try to do is earn their respect and their trust on what I do. I feel like I’ve been able to do that. I think the individuals that you would talk to, if you talked to them, they’d probably tell you the same thing.

“I’m not trying to be anything other than what I am, which is a support to the coach and the GM.”

This offseason, former 49ers coach candidate Adam Gase told CSNBayArea.com one of the reasons he really wanted the head-coaching position in 2015 was because of his relationship with York and Marathe.

Arizona executive Terry McDonough, a finalist for the 49ers’ GM job, went out of his way to compliment Marathe shortly after he learned Lynch was hired.

“When I was done with that first interview, I said, ‘This is a guy I would want to partner with, along with Jed and whoever the new head coach might be,’” McDonough said of Marathe.

A source close to McDaniels reached out to CSNBayArea.com to dispel any notion that McDaniels’ decision to remain with the Patriots was any reflection on those running the 49ers’ search. McDaniels stated he was impressed with York, Marathe and Brian Hampton, the team’s director of football administration and analytics.

The roles of Marathe and the organization’s use of analytics have been a topic of intrigue for years. Marathe said his role is merely to support the individuals on the football side to provide the team with any kind of advantage.

“My job is to keep my head down, stay my lane, do my job and help the head coach and GM as much as I can," he said.

Marathe added, "Coach Harbaugh, as you know, was looking for every advantage. One thing why he has so much success, he’s always looking for every advantage he can get. He used to use that NASCAR example, if you can figure out how to go 1 mph faster.

"So anything that helped him, we would go through. We’d talk after other games in the league about, ‘Hey, that team, they had one minute left. How many plays do you think they could’ve gotten off in that time? I thought six. Well, I thought seven.’ We’d go through it and talk through it. So, yeah, they were receptive, and it was good.”

Marathe said Lynch and Shanahan have already asked for his opinions on the feasibility of some of the upcoming decisions the organization must make during the offseason.

“I come at it from a different perspective, which is from the salary cap and contract side of things and also just having seen a lot over the years, in terms of how deals get made or how trades happen,” Marathe said.

Without specifying a position of inquiry, such as quarterback, Marathe said he has already provided Lynch and Shanahan with reference material for what it has taken to acquire players in past NFL trades.

“Here are all the other examples of when this position was traded for, and what people gave up to trade,” Marathe said. “That would establish the range for us if we are curious about a player at that position. And then we have a discussion from there.”

As the 49ers prepare for free agency, Marathe said the personnel department and coaching staff will rank the players by position. Then, Marathe will come up with comparable players and provide a range of what he anticipates a player will command on the open market. That leads to more discussion about which players are seen as better fits when considering football and finances.

“It’s my job to keep our cap as flexible as possible,” Marathe said. “But from a football standpoint, making decisions on players, that’s those two guys . . . I’m not good at that. That’s what they’re really good at, and that’s who I take my direction from.”

The 49ers have approximately $80 million in salary cap space entering the offseason. But that does not necessarily mean the 49ers will be willing to pay above market value to attract any players.

“I think there are times when you want to be a little bit more aggressive, versus maybe not be as aggressive,” Marathe said.

“The beauty of how the salary cap works, you can roll over the room to future years. There won’t ever be a salary cap dollar that’s unspent. We’ll always spend it. It just may not be this month. It could be next month or it could be next year. We’ll spend ever dollar. It doesn’t change the values. The values are still driven by what the market dictates.”