In the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, Phil Mickelson had a 1-shot lead heading into the final hole on Sunday. Mickelson had played the difficult par4 18th at level par for the three rounds prior, and was only four strokes away from winning his first-ever US Open Championship. But what would transpire in the span of roughly 15 minutes after he stepped onto the 18th tee box would ultimately go down as one of the biggest blunders in major championship history.
Those of us who witnessed Mickelson’s epic final hole meltdown remember it all too well. It began with a wayward slice into a courtesy tent well left of the fairway that ended up in a nearby trash can, but the ensuing drop resulted in a relatively good lie in the trampled down rough where thousands of spectators in the gallery had camped out the past 4 days. The only problem for Mickelson was a large tree standing about 80 feet tall directly between his ball and the green, an obstacle so imposing that arguably no player in his right mind would attempt to challenge with a 1-shot cushion and only three strokes away from a date with destiny.
But Mickelson saw only one shot as he stood over his ball a mere 75 feet behind that towering tree that afternoon. Ever the risk taker, in his mind he felt that the low-percentage shot was the one he needed to play. No player would intentionally put himself in such a precarious situation such as this one to be sure… but given the history of Mickelson’s aggressive nature, it was as if he longed for moments precisely like the one that had presented itself on this day. Instead of playing the card he was dealt and hedging his bet, Mickelson decided to go all-in.
As Kenny Rogers sang many moons ago in the song, The Gambler – “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.”
His double bogey finish would become the most embarrassing blunder of his career, and afterward he summed up his thoughts on the matter by saying, “I am such an idiot.”
You Don’t Have to be an Idiot…
It’s been over half of a decade since the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” but the lesson learned that Sunday is one that continues to be ignored by a majority of golfers to this very day. That lesson? Not allowing a bad shot to lead to a bad decision. Bad shots have cost Tour players a lot of fortune over the years, but bad decisions have cost some of them the most significant of career-changing victories.
The anatomy of a bad decision most commonly begins immediately following a bad swing, as was the case with Mickelson that Sunday at Winged Foot. Emotion elevates blood pressure, which is why when most adult males become upset – they often end up saying things to people that they later regret (providing they’re of decent ilk, of course). Nothing boils a golfer’s grits more than hitting the simplest of shots horribly, but the bad swing isn’t always the primary culprit of the train derailment up ahead. Nah, it’s the irrational workings of the mind at play, this sudden revelation that despite missing the widest fairway on the golf course and finding your ball directly behind the only tree on the hole – you’ve somehow channeled Tour-level competencies that seem far superior than whatever challenge faces you. In no fewer than a half dozen shots later, you then utter those familiar words that came from Phil Mickelson’s mouth afterward at Winged Foot: I am such an Idiot.
The funny thing is that your playing partners already know this, you didn’t have to remind them.
But idiots who don’t admit to being idiots sometimes go a step further into sheer idiocy: they blame their catastrophes on what they perceive to be bad breaks, when it couldn’t be further from the truth. A bad break is hitting an approach so splendidly accurate that it hits the flagstick and ends up in a footprint of an unraked green-side bunker. Well, actually that would be two bad breaks, of which (unfortunately) yours truly has experienced. I would be lying to you if I said that it didn’t upset me, but I did manage the situation well enough to make a par no less. The difference is in the way I looked at the situation. I went from seeing it as a bad break, to getting my wits about me soon enough to realize that I still had to somehow figure out how to best get out of the predicament. When that 10 footer to save par fell into the heart of the cup, I didn’t feel like I was robbed of a potential eagle or a likely birdie…. I felt like I’d actually come out ahead, that I’d dodged a bullet. And the reason I felt that way is for this one simple reason: IT IS WHAT IT IS. Golf owes us absolutely nothing. We can complain about finding divots in the center of the fairway all we want and deem them miscarriages of justice, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re charged with playing the ball as it lies and figuring out a way to overcome the predicament. You can’t do that playing angry and upset, or as though you’ve got something to prove. That mindset is destined for frustration as a golfer.
In other words, avoid playing the sympathy card, whether it was a bad shot or a perceived bad break, and do what Phil Mickelson failed to do on that final hole at Winged Foot: figure out a logical way to overcome the hurdle. Take an additional 15-20 seconds to consider your options and keep things in perspective. And unless your back is totally against the wall in a matchplay situation with no other options – always try to play to your strengths.
It could be the difference between a par and a triple bogey, or a career best and just another round.