Monday, July 18, 2016

When Losing is Winning: Thank you Phil Mickelson for helping golf grow

Jordan Spieth won the 2015 Masters by shooting a remarkable 18 strokes under par; a historic low score he shares with Tiger Woods. Few people remember those who finish second, but not in that major. Justin Rose posted an impressive 14 under par at the finish. After his round, a sportscaster asked Rose what he would have done differently. "Nothing," he said. His words were without bitterness or sarcasm. He added, "the only thing I needed to do was play better than Jordan, and today that wasn't possible." I was reminded of his words at the conclusion of the 2016 British Open; I wouldn't have been surprised if Phil Mickelson said the same thing. 
This year's finish reminded me there are different ways athletes win and a variety of paths to a championship title. Sometimes a victory is born from an epic collapse (2016 Masters). Other times a lead is so strong, the win is earned without much contest (2014 World Series). Some wins aren't even possible to watch given our personal biases or the intensity of a given rivalry that colors our vision (2016 NBA Finals). But the 2016 Open was one to appreciate for the sake of what it was—near match play competition between two exciting competitors. Though it didn't come down to the 18th hole—akin to a game 7 in MLB or NBA finals—both men raised the game of golf and one another in the process. When that type of win transpires, it helps golf grow. 

I am a Phil Mickelson fan for simple reasons. I've always loved a lefty (even though he's right handed), I like his aggressive style of play (it's cost him...and I'm ok with that), I admire his 28 year relationship with his caddy Jim "Bones" Mackay, I think gamblers can be fun (sorry!) and and any time a professional athlete is older than me, I celebrate their achievements. For example, I was upset when Tim Duncan retired not because I think he's such a classy and talented athlete, but I was sad to lose someone over 40 still making a run for it! Mickelson turned 46 in June. Therefore my bias toward Mickelson over Stenson, permitted the camera—otherwise known as my eyes and mind—to go out of its way to watch him on the course. I found myself psychoanalyzing his every move. I asked myself What is his body language suggesting? Why isn't Phillie walking with Bones right now. How much does he love finishing his putt first? 
In my humble and limited observations, amidst the pressure of every single shot on Sunday, my take away from the final round is that Phil truly enjoyed the competition. Shooting a bogey free Sunday at 6 under par, the highlight had to have been the eagle he made on the fourth hole. His putting was excellent and were the golf gods just a little bit kinder, more than two of them would have fallen (including the putt on 18 on the first day. It lipped out...he posted a 63 instead of a 62). But they didn't....and Henrik Stenson who has been flirting with a major longer than people might think was incredibly precise. I believe Germans are known for precision, but I'd like to make a case for his Swedish engineering of the game.

Some competitors lose sight of the larger game that is unfolding before them. I know because I've been that athlete, but I can't say that was true of Phil Mickelson during the Open final. He recognized good strokes and putts by Stenson, he smiled when the Swede completed an incredible up and down, rather than pouting or walking away without acknowledging what he did. He offered an extensive congratulations to Stenson—the number six player in the world— upon his victory. The face to face dialogue reminded me of the exchange between Payne Stewart and him at the US Open, Pinehurst in 1999. But in that duel, not this one, the man ushering the warm words was the victor, not the one who walked away in defeat. 
Henrik Stenson will represent his country at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, but other golfers like Rory McIlroy have opted out. McIlroy, himself a former Open champion explained "I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win majors."

I will be blogging about McIlory's comments soon as every fiber of my being disagrees with his outlook. Though I believe professional athletes must have a mindset that their goal is to win championships and win majors, I also believe it can and should be done in a way that grows the game. I think Mickelson's words affirm that it did: "I played close to flawless golf and was beat. It's probably the best I've played at not won. But Henrik made 10 birdies, so what are you going to do?" Like Justin Rose said, "nothing."

Phil, you may have lost on Sunday, but you have won the respect of the man who holds the 2016 Claret Jug and most especially those who love the game of golf. I hope you and Stenson said three powerful words as you walked off the course: "We did that." You did....he just did it better.  Thank you

Photo Credits
Two champions
Stenson and Mick
Thumbs up

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