Sunday, May 23, 2021

Thoughts on a Left-Hander

Before I thought of myself as a Southerner, or a Kentuckian, or almost any other identity, I identified as a left-hander.  In 1971, when I started kindergarten, teachers still made a big deal about left-handedness, and for several years it seemed like every adult who met me commented on my being a left-hander.  I loved sports, and it came up all the time there as well.  I can still remember going to Sears and seeing how few left-handed baseball gloves and golf clubs were available.

So I rooted for left-handers.  I read a book about Sandy Koufax, and became a huge fan of the Dodgers.  And years later, when a left-handed amateur won the old Northern Telecom Open, I became a big fan of Phil Mickelson.  Everyone knew -- well, at least I knew -- that Bob Charles (who won the 1963 British Open) was the only left-handed golfer to win a major tournament.  But with Mickelson, we left-handers would finally be heard from.  To this day, Mickelson's nickname is listed on Wikipedia as "Lefty."

Mickelson was 20 years old when he won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, and he -- and I -- have been through a lot together since then.  Mickelson was really good in his 20's -- he won 13 tournaments before his 30th birthday, and had seven top-10 finishes in majors.  But by the end of the 1990's, of course, there was a new sheriff in town.  Mickelson happened to be born within five years of one of the greatest golfers who ever lived, which meant that he would never reach the top of the pole.

The Official World Golf Rankings started on April 6, 1986.  Tiger Woods spent 906 weeks ranked in the top 10.  Ernie Els is second with 788 weeks in the top 10.  Mickelson is third -- 775 weeks in the top 10, including 402 weeks in a row from February 2004 to October 2011.  But here's the thing:  Mickelson has never been ranked number one.  Not one time.  Not ever.  He spent 270 weeks -- roughly five and one-half years -- at number two.  But never became number one.  No one else has spent more then 39 weeks at number two without reaching number one.

I saw it all.  Tiger is probably the greatest athlete I've ever seen, and he beat Mickelson over and over, in almost every way possible.  Mickelson still won a lot of tournaments -- his 45 PGA Tour victories put him in a tie for 8th on the all-time list with Walter Hagan.  But he could never say that he was number one -- that he was the best golfer in the world.  After Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open, he had 14 major titles, and Mickelson had 3.

But it wasn't just that Tiger won, it's how he won.  I don't know how true it is, but we are told that the right side of the brain (which is the dominant side for left-handers) is more creative and emotional, while the left side of the brain (the dominant side for right-handers) is the home of logic and reason.  And for most of their careers, Tiger and Phil were archetypes for these ideas.  Tiger can be emotional, but everything he did on the golf course appeared to be governed by reason.  He's the only golfer I've seen who could play more aggressively when he was behind, take the lead, and then immediately start playing more conservatively.  There must have been a tournament where Tiger blew a lead, but honestly I don't remember one.  He never seemed to choke, never seemed to lose control, never seemed to notice the crowds, or the drama, or anything that would distract him from victory.

And Phil?  He was not only one of the most talented golfers of all time; he was one of the most creative.  He could manufacture miraculous shots from all around the green.  He could rifle drives and iron shots into impossible locations.  He could make putts like a wizard.  But every so often, he would try to do something that couldn't be done.  He's spray a bad drive.  He'd miss an easy putt.  And those mistakes would kill him in major tournaments.

The most painful of those losses was the 2006 U.S. Open.  For once, Phil didn't have to worry about Tiger -- who missed the cut.  Phil shouldn't have had to worry about anyone.  With three holes left, Phil was 3 over par for the tournament -- a score that would have won by two shots.  He then bogeyed the 16th and parred the 17th, leaving him 4 over with one hole left.  He needed a par to win, or a bogey for a playoff.  He had won the 2005 PGA  and the 2006 Masters, so this would have been his third major title in a row.  It would show that after years in Tiger's shadow, he had learned how to be the best player in the world.  Instead, he did everything wrong.  He went with driver, and hit a terrible drive.  Instead of playing for a bogey, he hit a terrible second shot that only went 25 yards.  He played the hole so badly that he didn't even putt for bogey -- he was left with a chip that went six feet past the hole.  His double bogey gave the title to Geoff Ogilvy, and he has never won the U.S. Open to this day.

Tiger then won the 2006 British Open and the 2006 PGA.  And I thought that was the end of Mickelson as a serious power.  He was 36.  Tiger was only 30.  He would never beat Tiger.  He would never be the best.  He would always find ways to lose big tournaments.  His creativity was no match for Tiger's logic.  His whole career, in fact, seemed like a symbol of the limits of left-handed thinking.

But here's the thing:  Taking your time, and doing things in order, is something that's easier to do as you get older.  As I moved into my own 40's, I found that I had more patience and better judgment than I did before.  I wasn't so distracted by my emotions, and was more willing to make the safe play as opposed to the spectacular one.  As he and Tiger got older, Mickelson's game became more stable.  Between that 2006 U.S. Open and the 2013 British Open, Mickelson won 13 tournaments, including two more majors.  His galleries got larger, and his fans more exuberant.  People stopped judging him for not being as good as Tiger, and started to appreciate just how great he had been all along.

Of course, time was now catching up with him.  He was 43 when he made a spectacular charge to win the 2013 British Open, and it would be five more years before he won another tournament.  He kept playing, and sometimes he played very well.  The mental side of his game was better than ever, but no one has the physical talent in their 40's that they had before turning 35.  In my career, I could take full advantage of the new wisdom I had gained with age -- but Mickelson could not.

Until this week.  The 2021 PGA Championship will rank as one of the most stressful golf tournaments ever played.  After over a year of pandemics and cancellations, the golfers found themselves dealing with huge, drunken galleries that appeared to have wandered over from a filming of Caddyshack.  The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is an exhausting slog where you have to deal with a stiff breeze.  The winds changed direction on Sunday -- making the course play different than it had played all weekend.  By the end, almost everyone -- including the CBS broadcast team -- appeared to be exhausted.  Bryson DeChambeau, who is supposed to represent the New Age of golfing technology, faded to a 77 on the last day.  Bubba Watson shot 80.  Jordan Spieth shot a 74.  By the end of the tournament, only seven players beat par by more than one shot.

Meanwhile, Mickelson was left to face two very tough golfers, neither of which was likely to choke.  Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka are solid, canny players who know how to win big tournaments.  Neither played great on Sunday -- but neither really choked either.  They both finished the day with four-under par scores of 284 -- more than good enough to beat a 50-year-old man with only fumes left in the tank.  To lose the tournament, Mickelson only needed to lose his concentration, make a few bad shots, or let his emotions get to him.

But after all these years, he showed us what he had learned.  He still had his magic touch around the greens -- he holed out a bunker shot for a key early birdie, and his chipping was tremendous all day.  But he showed us how to let the pressure weigh on the other folks, how to keep managing your emotions when you make a bad shot, how to focus on the big picture and not take unnecessary chances.  And so, today, after all these years, he got the spotlight all to himself.  Phil Mickelson became the oldest man ever to win a major championship -- for the rest of his life, he will be a hero to all of us in Generation X, not just the left-handers.  And he deserves every bit of it.

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