Hildebrand, a rookie, could see the checkered flag waving in the distance. All he had to do to win last week's Indianapolis 500 was come through the final turn without, oh, hitting the wall. He had managed to do that in the previous 199 laps. But coming out of the final turn and only a couple of moments from chugging milk, Hildebrand drifted into the wall, tore up his car and then watched in horror as Dan Wheldon passed him to win the race. Hildebrand had such a lead that his wrecked car, missing two wheels, still had enough momentum to drift over the finish line in second place, just seconds behind Wheldon. You'd like to believe that something went wrong with the car or a fly flew in his face or something. But there is no reasonable explanation other than Hildebrand simply got caught up in the moment. It might have cost him his best chance to ever win one of the most prestigious events in sports.
Jacobellis is one of greatest snowboarders in history. She has won seven X Games gold medals and three world championships. Yet she will forever be remembered as "that girl" who hot-dogged her way out of a gold medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Just 140 feet from the finish line in the snowboard cross, the then-21-year-old Jacobellis held a three-second lead over Tanja Frieden of Switzerland. Coming off the final jump, Jacobellis decided to celebrate by trying a trick move. She landed awkwardly, ended up on her rear end and was helpless as Frieden zoomed past her to take the gold. Jacobellis, who won the silver, first tried to deny showboating by saying she was trying to gain balance for the end of the race but later admitted she was hamming it up and said, "I was having fun." Wonder if it was fun listening to the Swiss national anthem after the race?
In our minds, the worst collapse in sports history. Furthermore, it's hard to feel sorry for Van de Velde because of his stubbornness and stupidity. At the 1999 British Open, Van de Velde could have double bogeyed the final hole (a par 4) at Carnoustie and still become the first Frenchman since 1907 to win the Open Championship. Instead of playing it safe, he hit driver off the tee and narrowly escaped trouble. He should have laid up on his second shot, but he decided to go for the green. His shot hit the grandstand and then some rocks and landed in the heavy rough. His third shot landed in shallow water. He took a drop, hit his next (fifth) shot in a bunker, then blasted out on his sixth shot. He then putted in from 6 feet to salvage a three-way tie with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, who would go on to win a four-hole playoff and cement Van de Velde as a legend — for the wrong reason.
Before the 1996 Masters, Greg Norman might have been the best golfer in the world. After the 1996 Masters, Norman was known for, at the time, the most infamous collapse in golf. He had a six-stroke lead going into the final round. The day started rough and got worse when hit the ninth hole. Then came a bogey, followed by another bogey, followed by another bogey and then a double bogey. Even seasoned golfers in the clubhouse turned away from the televisions, sickened by the implosion. By the time the nightmare was over — Milwaukee sports writer Gary D'Amato wrote, "It was like watching a funeral procession on grass" — Norman had shot 78 and had lost the Masters to Nick Faldo … by five shots!
Sanders, who played golf at the University of Florida, might be the original Jean Van de Velde, although his collapse wasn't nearly as arrogant or monumental. Still, the 1970 British Open was close to his. How close? About 74 yards. All he had to do was make it in the hole in fewer than four shots from 74 yards and the Open Championship was his. You can guess what happened. It took him four shots, including missing a 3-foot putt to win. Instead, he ended up in an 18-hole playoff, where he lost by a shot to the great Jack Nicklaus. Sanders won 20 PGA events and was a runnerup in four majors. But he never won a major.
The most heartbreaking collapse on this list. This is the classic case of an athlete whose nerves simply overwhelmed her when she realized she was this close to winning the greatest tennis tournament in the world. Playing the legendary Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, the eighth-seeded Novotna lost the first set 6-7 but stormed back to win the second set 6-1 and was up 4-1 in third and deciding set. Serving at 40-30, she was a point away from going up 5-1 and just five points from winning the championship. That's when she became unglued. She lost the game, then the three games after that. Graf won the third set 6-4. During the trophy presentation, Novotna cried in the arms of the Duchess of Kent. The story does, however, have a happy ending. Novotna won Wimbledon in 1998.
He is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, yet there is a noticeable hole in McEnroe's resume. He never won a French Open. He will go to his grave remembering the French Open that got away. By 1984, McEnroe was already a dominant grass and hardcourt player, but he wanted to prove he could be the best on clay, too. Playing rival Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open final, McEnroe built a two-set lead, losing only five games, and then went up a break in the third. But worn out physically, mentally and emotionally, McEnroe hit the wall. Lendl broke back and won the third, 6-4. Then he won the fourth and fifth sets, both by 7-5 scores. McEnroe never reached the French final again.
The 21-year-old Irishman was the feel-good story of this year's Masters. His first-day 65 made him the youngest golfer ever to lead the Masters after the first round. He then shot 69 on Friday and a 70 on Saturday to take a four-stroke lead into Sunday's final round. Then, ka-boom, it all blew up. In a round that was painful to watch, McIlroy hacked his way through Augusta National and played the worst final round in Masters history by any pro golfer leading after three rounds. The final tally: an 80. He went from four shots up to 10 shots out and a tie for 15th.
A week ago today, JR Hildebrand was seconds — mere seconds — from winning the Indianapolis 500. Then the wheels came off. Literally. Instead of being hailed as the winner of, perhaps, the most famous auto race in the world, Hildebrand is now known for one of the most infamous collapses in sports. Today, we look at the biggest collapses by individuals in sports history. In each case, the stakes were high — major championships, gold medals — and victory was in their grasp. Try not to cry as you read these sad stories.
Jean Van de Velde