Sunday, September 21, 2008

Today, Phil Gets to Be The Big Man...Sort Of

In golf, there are two kinds of people:

People who like Tiger.

And People who like Phil.

It is truly one of the age old conflicts: cats vs. dogs, vampires vs. werewolves, Mac vs PC. There are those who successfully end up taking the middle road or remaining apart from the fight (iguana owners, zombies, Linux users) but, in the end, even those who are not directly enmeshed in the fray find themselves with an opinion.

Phil fans find Tiger aloof, arrogant, and overly polished. Tiger fans find Phil false, arrogant, and erratic. I could try to draw some parallel with how Obama and McCain fans feel about their respective foes, but the thought isn't fully formed yet and this is about golf and not politics anyway.

I'm in the Tiger camp, I'll say that clearly and fervently. So if you are a Phil Phanatic (a phrase that always makes me feel like I'm at a Phish concert) you may find a lot of what I have to say offensive or the inaccurate ravings of someone who has swallowed the Tiger Kool-Aid. But then again, consider reading on, you may find a grain of truth.

When Tiger announced his year-long leave of absence to heal (and make more babies -- that's what I'd do if I was stuck at home with Elin all day) golf viewership tanked worse that WaMu stock. And, I secretly think a lot of the fighting-for-second crowd secretly made sacrifices at their little voodoo shrines for the chance to possibly be number one for a year. Number one among those who are not the best golfer in the world, that is.

Picture 2.jpgAnd now we're going to get to the Ryder Cup, that international America vs. Europe contest that has, for so many years, been the province of the European teams. And why, this year, without the participation of the finest golfer in the world (Tiger), the US finally managed to win the thing back. You'd think, naturally, that with its star player wounded, the US team should have been a walkover for Nick Faldo's Euro-squad. But it proved anything but -- a stunningly strong opening, a passable second day, an up and down but ultimately highly successful third day, and the Ryder Cup came back to the USA squad for the first time since 1999 and only the third time in 25 years.

How'd it happen? Was this some spectacular "Win one for Tiger!" moment, complete with stirring music (I'm picturing either Also Sprach Zarathustra, something from Howard Shore's score to Henry V, or possibly something by the Beastie Boys), emotional choked up speeches, and silent vows? Or was it something more psychologically intricate and subtle? A few thoughts, then, on teams, motivation, Phil, and the Ryder Cup.

For starters, Team Europe has long played an "underdog" card. And that was fine, for a long time. Golf's Bright Lights were from the USA, and the Europeans could very rationally claim to be in the disadvantaged position. Anyone knows that an underdog team can come together and pull of a great collective performance when well lead. But after how many years (or decades) of dominance, that downtrodden underdog position gets harder and harder to claim. Not only in the press but also internally, motivationally. Toss in Tiger's outage and Team Europe had to feel that they were the favorites going on this year. And perhaps my virtue of feeling like the favorites, the players of Team Europe may have tasted some of that complacency that everyone will acknowledge was part of the undoing of past American squads.

So perhaps something changed in Team Europe. But something must have changed in Team USA. What? Just as Europe may have finally gotten bit by "expected winner's syndrome" perhaps USA might have finally dodged "expected looser's syndrome." Just as being in the underdog position can give some individuals or teams the devil-may-care, damn-the-torpedos attitude to reach in and grab victory in the most improbably of situations, it can give others a happy reason to not risk it and play it safe and perform exactly as well as is expected of them.

I see this occasionally with students of mine -- instead of going balls-out and really pushing themselves, they opt to settle for doing about as well as they have previously done. Of course they don't come out and say "Hey, Nick, I'm scared of excelling because excelling requires that you set expectations that you might fail to meet. So instead I'm going to tell myself that I can do OK and really am not ready to do better than that." Instead they construct carefully (all be it subconsciously) planned, internally consistent systems of excuses and apologies for why they can't take my instruction, advice, coaching, etc.

And I think that Team USA was settling into that trap -- everyone knew that they were going to loose, so they didn't really go out there and take risks that could appear as really failing. It is a defense mechanism -- if you expect to fail, you distance yourself from the event so it doesn't matter as much and you aren't hurt when you do fail. And of course this effectively guarantees that you will fail. Ok, I over explained that enough.

Perhaps, with the big star gone (or possibly Paul Azinger's captainship has something to do with this too) they were finally willing to take those risk and push themselves. Perhaps they were frustrated. Perhaps there was less of a sensation of diffusion of responsibility ("Tiger will carry us through!"). Perhaps the relatively high rookie fraction helped break the miasma of expected failure. Who knows, but watching Anthony Kim fist-pump his way through the opening holes of his singles match has to have started a few motors running and got the team's motivation moving.

Past American teams have been criticized for playing not, as a team, but as a collection of superstars who happen to dress alike. Its a lesson that the "Redeem Team" could well remember, since it is a challenge they had to overcome a couple of months ago in Beijing. And they did. For at least the past two Ryder Cup's, however, all the pre-event press was full of promises to play as a team, to not fly in their individual jets, to drink the same beers, whatever. But saying such things is not the same as playing or acting that way. The difference between words and actions, as we all know, is the difference between cheap and expensive.

But here we get to that cats vs. dogs thing. Phil and Tiger -- the two best American golfers and the natural on-the-field leaders of the American team -- are not broadly compatible people. I've always had the feeling that, in the PGA locker room, you line up on Phil's side or on Tiger's side. Possibly you line up somewhere entirely different, but that's only if you are a genuinely out there dude like Rocco Mediate. So you put the two guys in the same room and, well, guys are going to line up. You are, at best, going to have two teams there.

So, oddly, being missing a top player might have made the team stronger.

Picture 1.jpgAnd then there is Phil himself. Every team needs a leader -- a guy on the field who brings the spirit. A sergeant who leads from the front, inspires by example. The guy who the crowd cheers for and the players play for. Anthony Kim looks like he might be the new darling/hero of the event, stepping up to put away Sergio, fist pumping away in the opening holes, getting the crowd and the team in to it.

But before the start, before the accidental or unexpected hero emerges, there is the expected leader. Phil. The senior member, the top ranked member of either squad, in a lot of ways the senior statesman of the PGA. Phil's a great golfer. He was supposed to be the greatest golfer in the world. I have a book, written in the early 1990's that describes him this way, as the heir apparent to the throne of Nicklaus and company. Then that Tiger guy sprung fully formed onto the scene. And Phil went from number one (expected) to number two (perpetually). Ouch.

Picture 3.jpgI'm not sure if having the carpet yanked out from under him is what did it, but Phil's a weak guy. He's a solid golfer, a master of the trick shot, the most profoundly analytical player of any sport (except possibly chess, which is a game and not a sport anyway) I've ever seen. But he's emotionally un-solid. He doubts, he frets, he thinks (and thinks and thinks and thinks and thinks and thinks). I don't think he actually has the belief in himself that he projects. And golf (along with trauma surgery and air-to-air combat) requires complete belief in self. You make your plan, choose your shot, and from that moment on, any doubt or debate in your head is going to do you in. Half way between shots, pick the longer club and hit it soft and you MUST commit your head, heart and muscles to that decision or you'll overswing and drill that damn dimpled sphere fifteen yards beyond the green and into the baby back grilling on someone's Weber.

When self-doubters are faced with a threat (by which, in Phil's case, I mean Tiger) they do one (or several) of several things. They hide away, don't take the chance of putting themselves up against the threat (and therefore face the threat of being found wanting) and so don't perform to their full potential as leaders or individuals. Or they overcompensate, push it out to stand above, take unnecessary risks and make marginal choices because they feel they need to over achieve in order to rise above the threat. Or, and this is Phil, they doubt themselves and second guess their decisions and vacillate between strong and bold decisions and the indecision or analysis paralysis.

There is a brilliant line in a terrible movie (Balls of Fury -- don't ask, it was free): "You suck when you are nervous." That's exactly what this is all about. Feel confident, play like a rockstar. Doubt yourself, choke up and get unnatural. Phil.

No Tiger, to threat, strong Phil.

No Tiger, no conflict, solid team.

No Tiger, no excuses, inspired performance.

So sometimes weakness can lead to strength. I'm not sure if this reverse-Tiger-factor is the sole or even dominant factor in Team USA's victory. But the analyst in me always thinks like this: when you have a different result, look at what "ingredients" were different. Odds are that any connection you see isn't a coincidence. I'm not sure that had Phil broken his leg and missed the tournament the same factors might not have come in to play (though I do suspect that Phil, with a broken leg, would not have concealed his injury and proceeded to win a major!).

And I'd like to wrap up with the point that, despite having all of these roads paved for him, Phil has failed to actually metamorphose into the superstar leader that he had the opportunity to become. Other, younger players ("Boo...Boo...Boo...") have done so. Phil's played workmanlike and well. Ish. He's struggled to close the deal out (day two, final hole, final putt). But that's where the analysis paralysis comes in -- regardless of what else goes on -- as the stakes get higher, the fear of risk and error grows to overwhelm the possible promise of success. And then the indecision, the doubt, and the meltdown. We never got a meltdown, we just got workmanlike. From number two in the world, we should have gotten better. Particularly with all the cards lined up to set Phil up for a ticker tape parade and a new Gulfstream. But enough of that.

Now Tiger, in case you are reading this (which is unlikely, if you remember that earlier comment about being stuck at home with Elin), get well and get your game back on. I miss you, golf needs you, and despite their voodoo shrines, I'm sure all those fighting-for-second-place guys would really prefer to be out there measuring themselves against the best in the world.

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