For Watney, failures gone and forgotten

Nick Watney isn’t the wunderkind that Rory McIlroy is, but he seems to have something the 21-year-old Irishman needs to acquire: selective amnesia.

McIlroy, of course, blew a four-stroke lead heading to the final round of the Masters earlier this month by shooting 80 in the final round. Then he lost another 54-hole lead the following week in the Malaysian Open.

Already, people are worried McIlroy might turn into Sergio Garcia.

Watney has been there and done that. He took a three-stroke lead through 54 holes in the PGA Championship in Whistling Straits last August before throwing away the opportunity by closing with an 81 — tied for the worst closing round of the field.

Perhaps it comes with maturity, but all Watney, who turned 30 on Monday, has done since is post seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, including the third victory of his career in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in March against arguably the best field in the world so far this year.

"You know, Whistling Straits was a very bad day on the scorecard," said Watney, who plays this week in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which he won in 2007 for the first of his three victories on the PGA Tour. "But I learned a lot that day, just about how I handle situations, and I think that helped me in Doral.

"I was thinking way too much about the outcome of the tournament. If you don’t take care of business, you don’t need to think about the outcome because it’s not going to be what you want.

" . . . I think it was a necessary step, but I didn’t need to shoot 81."

Dustin Johnson had a similar meltdown when he shot an 82 after holding the third-round lead in the US Open at Pebble Beach last June and then was assessed a two-stroke penalty on the final hole at Whistling Straits, keeping him out of the playoff in which Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson.

All the amateur sports psychologists have wondered how these nightmares might affect McIlroy, Johnson and Watney — three of golf’s brightest younger talents — moving forward, but it can happen to veterans, too.

Retief Goosen seemed headed for his third U.S. Open title in five years when he held the 54-hole lead in 2005 at Pinehurst before stumbling to a closing 81 on the famed No. 2 course, and the Goose has not been a major player since.

On the flip side, Bernhard Langer made one of the great bounce-backs in golf history after missing a putt that would have given the Europeans the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island. The German icon won the Mercedes Masters on the European Tour the following week, added a second Masters title two years later and has virtually owned the Champions Tour the past three years.

Watney had a mini moment of mind control at Doral. After he squandered the lead by hitting his tee shot on No. 18 into the water in Round 3, he arrived at the hole the next day with a one-stroke lead over Johnson.

After striping his drive 315 yards down the middle, he hit a laser-like approach to within 13 feet and sank the putt for a two-stroke victory, two years after losing the same tournament by one stroke to Phil Mickelson.

"Well, I thought about (the water ball on Saturday), but I thought about why that happened, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again," said Watney, whose other PGA Tour victory came in the 2009 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines.

" . . . It’s nice to finish second in a World Golf event (as he did in 2009), but at the same time, it’s the worst place to finish when it’s a close tournament like that.

"So two years ago came into my head, and also Whistling Straits, just the letdown and disappointment of the way that I performed that day. So I just wanted to allow myself to play well and to execute, and I was able to do that."

Watney also did all he could in a virtual mano y mano duel with Mickelson that final day in 2009, holing out for birdie on No. 9 and making eagle on the next hole while pushing Mickelson all the way to the finish.

Lefty was duly impressed.

"I think (Watney is) an incredibly talented player, and he’s one of the nicest players we have on tour," said Mickelson, who captured his first WGC event after seven lead changes in the final round.

"I look forward to him being on some of our team events. I think he’s going to be a real asset to our squad in the US team events."

That hasn’t happened yet, but Watney is fifth in the U.S. rankings for the Presidents Cup matches in November at Royal Melbourne in Australia.

If he’s learned anything, he knows not to think too much about it.