Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Weight of Victory Is as Heavy as That of Defeat -- Heavier Even

There is almost no danger that his 45 minutes of terror and lost balls on the back nine of Augusta National last Sunday will be the most remembered event of Jordan Spieth's golf career. Thirty years hence, he won't be mentioned in the same sentence as Jean Van de Velde.

In fact, Masters champion Danny Willett is at greater risk of a stern sentence from the bar of golf history. He could yet wind up mentioned in the same sentence as Paul Lawrie.

Who's that, you say? Why Lawrie was the winner of the 1999 Open Championship. He was the beneficiary of Van de Velde's breakdown of mind and body on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie. Lawrie went on to win the title in a playoff. He holds the record for biggest final day comeback in a major tournament, having begun the last round 10 strokes off the lead.

And nobody knows, or almost nobody. The video of Van de Velde's comical, horrible triple bogey is a staple of sports television. It never shows clips of Lawrie hoisting the claret jug in triumph. Lawrie's still on the European Tour, a ham and egg journeyman uncelebrated beyond his own household.

If Willett doesn't continue to succeed at the highest levels of tournament golf, indeed, if he doesn't win another major, he will become Lawrie, a guy seen as having prospered from the misfortune of one of his betters. The 2016 Masters will be known not as Willett's victory, but as Spieth's disaster.

This would be most unfair. Not only did Willett should a flawless 67 on Sunday, he also coped with the burden of a sudden and unexpected lead in what was now a wide-open tournament. Willett was on the 15th green when Spieth quadruple-bogeyed the 12th. Willett went on to finish birdie-par-par, earning the praise of interested observer Mr. J.W. Nicklaus.

But Willett's win would be denigrated all the same. There are few areas of human endeavor where it's more of a front-runner's universe than golf, and its history is the same if not more so. One can see this happening even now. For every sentence of praise for Willett's performance, there's been an avalanche of essays, columns, stories, blog posts and tweets on Spieth's. Golf defines itself by what happens to its favorites, not its underdogs.

There's been some long-distance psychological hooey aimed at Spieth, speculation that his collapse will leave lasting scars that'll harm his golf for as long as he keeps playing. One never says never, except this time I will. That's not gonna happen. Spieth's just too good. Multiple major winners, which he already is at age 22, are made of stern stuff, and more of them than one might think have major tournament collapses on their resumes.

Start with Spieth's contemporary peer, Rory McIlroy. McIlroy had yet to win a major when he fell apart at the 2011 Masters in exactly the same fashion, disintegrating with a lead as he stood on the 10th tee of the final round. Oh, the long-distance psychoanalysis was way more superheated in his case. More specious, too, as McIlroy promptly won the next major, the US Open, by about the same margin by which Secretariat won the Belmont. He's won an Open Championship and two PGAs since.

Phil Mickelson kicked away his best chance to win a US Open with a drive to parts unknown on the 72nd hole. Nobody in their right mind calls Mickelson a choker. His failure is accepted as an inescapable part of his greatness. The drive at Winged Foot is the flip side of the shot he hit off the pine straw to win the 2010 Masters. Mickelson has always gone for broke and to hell with prudence. It's why he's loved. Life's too short to lay up.

Greg Norman's debacle at the 1996 Masters is seen as the defining moment of his career not because it was, really (he was already on its downside) but because it epitomized what was the most amazing long term hard luck story the sport has told. Before that awful day, Norman had already lost each one of the four major tournaments in a playoff. Two of the losses were by holeouts. Somebody up there with a five-iron in his hand didn't like him.

Arnold Palmer double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to lose the 1961 Masters, He lost a seven-stroke lead on the final day to lose the 1967 US Open. That's two big fades. Who cares? He's Arnie.

Sam Snead tripled bogeyed the 72nd to lose the 1939 Open and missed a short putt to lose the same tourney in 1947. He was famous for never winning an Open. He's still famous, but the Open gap is a just a quirk of his legend, nothing more. Ben Hogan, Ben Hogan!! went a long time on Tour before he starting winning, and believe it or not, he had a rep for not being able to finish.

Unless everything else Spieth has done in golf was a mirage or unless they change the rules to make putting less important, his destiny will be to have his Sunday of perfect misery stand as an exception to past and future successes, a reminder that the sport's too hard for anybody to beat it all the time, so failure is to be understood, excused and forgotten if success is to be properly celebrated.

The US Open is in two months at Oakmont. As defending champion, Jordan Spieth will face a considerable amount of pressure when he steps on the first tee.

Masters champion Danny Willett will face more.


At 5:37 AM, Blogger Cape Cod Scott said...

Hi Michael...always a pleasure to see a new post up on Homegame. I don't know how much traffic you get, but more people should check out your site.
Thanks for the excellent thoughts on this year's Masters. I was rooting hard for Spieth even though Willet deserved the win. I appreciate the compilation of previous great winners who had bad losses. McIlroy, Mickelson, Norman, Palmer, Sneed, Hogan...all remembered for their great records, not their failures.
No one whose nickname doesn't end in "azz" has found joy in Spieth's hiccup Sunday, (he even compared it to Van de Velde's disaster) but I know I for one will be hoping he bounces back this Father's Day and repeats as US Open Champ.
Thanks Michael,


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