Leaving The Heartbreak Behind

Phil-Mickelson-US-Open-2013_2960284

By Westray Battle

 

Sometimes in an individual sport on the world’s greatest stages, a player will harness the weight of the rooting world on their shoulders and take the fans on an epic quest right to the brink of history and glory—only to be harshly dismissed as a mortal runner-up.

The loss is so devastating, so heart-stopping, so gut wrenching, that it is hard to let it go. I often have trouble sleeping after these epic near-misses, imagining how the competitors are coping with just how close they came to history. Sports reveal character in those difficult moments and I can’t get enough of watching, of sharing in the agony – the postgame interviews, the days that follow, if and when they surface afterwards. I can’t get enough of watching the Silver medal finisher in the Olympics, because if they came close but lost Gold, their reaction is as cruelly captivating as a car wreck.

Ultimately, perspective tells us that the journey was what it was all about, despite the outcome. When the Gods take you to the gates of Heaven and then turn you aside at the last possible moment, this is the true test of the soul. We love and understand a little more about the human condition by watching these heroic, historic performances end in utter failure and disappointment. Because sports teaches us about life – that most of us will fail more often than we triumph- but we are better for having entered the arena than having watched from afar.

In Tom Watson’s case in 2009, the moment was heightened, because we knew that it could never happen again. At 59 years old, the stars had aligned that weekend at Turnberry, and we all knew Tom could never turn back the clock and put himself in that position again. But maybe just that one day, a 9-iron instead of an 8 on the final hole would have done it, one simple up and down from the fringe would have made history, but it was not to be as Stuart Cink would play the undeserving villain and win the anti-climactic playoff. After several sleepless nights, I was finally able to realize that it was really about the journey – not the result. For those four days in Scotland, Tom Watson had engendered himself to three generations of fans, had defined the word ‘class’, had made me want to be a better man, to work harder, reach higher, dream bigger and taught us all how to imagine and be children again. But just as fast – just as unflappable and a man of 40 years that he seemed for 72 holes – he looked tired, spent and much more like 70 years old in the playoff as Father Time had said, “Enough.”

For Phil Mickelson at Merion, it was the five other times he had finished second, when he had come so close to winning the Open that created the drama. It started in 1999 at Pinehurst, when as his first child was about to be born, he wore the beeper and said he would walk off the course in any situation if it went off.  Payne Steward would make three clutch putts on the last 3 holes, including a 25 footer on 16 and a 15 footer on 18 to win by one. Stewart grabbed his face and  told him famously “You’re going to be a father” after ripping his heart out. Stewart would die tragically in a plane crash just 4 months later.

Fast forward 14 years later and Phil flew home from San Diego for his daughter’s 8th grade graduation. (the same daughter who was born the day after the first heartbreak in 1999) He flies all night to arrive at the US Open at 4am for a 7am tee time and goes out and shoots 67 and takes the lead. The symmetry of it all on Father’s day, of what Payne Stewart taught him about fatherhood and the fragility of life, how to seize the opportunity and the moment, and the five previous second place finishes. When Mickelson holed out for an Eagle 2 on the 10th hole, it was his time, his destiny. He would wipe away all the memories at Pinehurst, Bethpage, Shinnecock and Winged Foot – who could forget 2006 at Winged Foot when par would have won the Open, but he said after a terrible double bogey, “I’m such an idiot.” But it was not to be – this would be like the rest – so close, but not quite- second again.

I attended my first PGA Tour event in 1995 at the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale. Phil Mickelson beat Justin Leonard in a three-hole playoff. After sprinting around the course that afternoon hopscotching from playoff hole to hole, I waited in-line and got Mickelson to sign my badge. Caught up in the moment after my first golf tournament, the excitement of the playoff and my 21 year-old exuberance, I asked Phil, “Ryder cup-like pressure and atmosphere out there today, huh Phil?” He smiled, signed my badge, and said, “No, not quite!”

The tournament ended on Saturday to accommodate Super Bowl XXX (Cowboys 27-Steelers 17 – Steelers’ first loss in a Super Bowl, Neil O’Donnell game losing interception to Larry Brown – heartbreak of a similar variety that solidified Bill Cowher’s vision quest, which unlike these tales would end happily ten years later in Super Bowl XL, when the Steelers would beat the Seahawks after reaching at least the AFC Championship game five other times without winning the title over the previous dozen years.

But what we cannot forget is that without the losses and the heartbreak, you can’t have the triumphs. How much less gratifying would the Red Sox World Series title in 2004 have meant without all those years since their last title in 1918. How much sweeter was it after they overcame their 3-0 ALCS lead and 4-3 deficit in the 9th inning of game 4 to their hated-rival Yankees?

We often witness children can often absorb defeat much easier than their parents and let it go far quicker. Almost symmetrically, it seems like an older Tom Watson could handle the loss better than Phil could. I wonder how long Phil will hold onto this recent heartbreak. At 43 years old now, I wonder how many chances Phil has left to win the Open? A man reveals his character in the face of adversity and I will keep dreaming of that Open with a different ending. But if we don’t get to watch that movie, we must embrace the experience, the journey, the moment.

A couple of quotes speak to the condition better than I could:

“Tomorrow we will run faster and stretch our arms further….” – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

 

These are my three most heartbreaking near-misses of the 21st Sporting Century.

Father Time

2009 British Open at Turnberry – 59 year old Tom Watson bogeyed the final hole on Sunday and would lose to Stuart Cink in a playoff, who was born two years before Tom won his first of six Claret jugs in 1975. One eight-foot putt was all that separated Watson from being the oldest majors champion, by 13 years – Jack Nicklaus, 46, at the Masters in 1986. “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?” Watson said. “And it was almost. Almost. The dream almost came true.”

The White Whale

2009 Wimbledon Final when Roger Federer outlasted Andy Roddick in five sets, winning 16-14 in the epic fifth set. (longest Grand Slam final in history at over 4 hours and 77 games) Roddick would lose to Federer for the 3rd time in the Wimbledon final and 4th time in a major. (Wimbledon 2004, 2005, 2009 and US Open in 2006)

The Monkey on His Back

2013 – Phil Mickelson surrenders the lead of his long coveted US Open Title at Merion to Justin Rose on the back nine on Sunday. He had held the lead since the first round on Thursday only to finish second for a record 6th time since 1999.

 

 

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