Tuesday, June 20, 2006

It's Not How, It's How Many

The title of this note is one of golf's oldest and truest cliches. It's hard to believe that one of the best professional golfers on the planet would forget the saying while standing on the tee of the 72nd hole of the US Open, but Phil Mickelson did, with the predictably disastrous result of a double-bogey to lose tournament by a single stroke.

Know what's harder to believe? Mickelson's not the first nor will he be the last of history's great players to pull such an elemental rock in crunch time of a major. Lefty's self-destructive decision to go for broke when prudence was the only sane call may have infuriated Johnny Miller, but golf history is littered with similiar Pickett's Charges.

Here's one so similiar I can't believe I haven't seen it referenced yet. In the 1961 Masters Arnold Palmer, as beloved a favorite as Mickelson was at Winged Foot, came to the 18th hole on Sunday needing par to win and bogey to tie. Did Arnie lay up with an iron? Did he prudently send his second shot into the heart of the green for a two-putt? Nah! He was Arnold Palmer, damn it. Palmer's drive was a little wide, so he didn't have the best angle at the flag. He tried to hit the approach stiff, dumped it in the left front bunker, and made 6.

Palmer, of course, was as much a gambler on the course as is Mickelson, the main source of their popularity. Surely their tourney-losing decisions sprang from their reckless personalities.

Tiger Woods, by contrast, as about as reckless as Alan Greenspan. Yet if golf's supreme rationalist made the same mistake as Mickelson, in almost the same situation.

At the 2003 Masters, Woods was coming off a birdie and making a Sunday charge up the leaderboard when he reached the third tee at Augusta National, the shortest par 4 on the course and a hole that begs long hitters to pull out the big one and go for the green.

EVERY golfer knows that a hole begs one to do something, the wise man does the opposite. Woods did. He took a five-iron, then let caddy Steve Williams persuade him to use the driver instead. The resulting double-bogey cost Woods any chance of being the first man to win the Masters three times running.

(That's Woods' version of the story, anyhow. He wasn't blaming Williams, merely pointing out the folly of a golfer letting anything override his first instincts. There's a subset of golf opinion that says Mickelson's caddy Bones Mackay should've prevented his man from hitting driver on the 18th last Sunday. I'll accept that statement only from anyone who has documented proof they stood up and told their immediate superior. "Hold it boss. That's a totally bad idea you have there")

Well, Woods and Palmer recovered from their debacles to go on and win more majors. Will Mickelson. Will his lobotomized 18th at Winged Foot blight his career and memory forever more?.

By taking damn fool gambles when there was no need, Sam Snead blew a THREE-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the 1939 Open. He had an 8! and the snowman cost him the title. In 25 more tries, the man who won more professional tour tournaments than any other never, ever, won a US Open. This blot on Snead's golf escutcheon means exactly zip to his status as a legend of the game.

So Mickelson will recover from his humiliation. He'll do so thanks to the character trait that caused it. The difference between great golfers and the millions of others who play the game is that the average player's worst catastrophes come from lack of confidence. Pros go bad thanks to an excess of same.

That's why Johnny Miller didn't have a bad word to say about poor Colin Montgomerie's double-bogey on 18th that blew HIS chance for his first major title. Monty made an amateur's error. He stood over his approach shot and thought, "whatever you do, don't leave it short and right." Any swing that begins with the thought, "whatever you do, don't..." invariably does just that.

The golf world feels terribly for Monty and is holding up Mickelson's debacle as an object lesson in the dangers of hubris. Odds are, however, the next world-class player facing the choices Mickelson had will make the exact same decisions. It's how they got to the 72nd tee of a major with the lead in the first place.


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