BETHESDA, MD.: Last month, Phil Mickelson called his sixth runner-up finish in the U.S. Open “heartbreaking.”
His wife, Amy, told national writers he hardly got out of bed for two days afterward.
Five weeks later, Mickelson mended those wounds. He rebounded in stunning fashion, winning the British Open with four birdies on the last six holes in a round he called the best of his life.
Mickelson found a way to bounce back emotionally from his disastrous Sunday at Merion. That might be one of the toughest aspects of life on the PGA Tour, where top players compete 15 to 25 times per year and where batting .100 for a career would make them a lock for the hall of fame.
Some of Mickelson’s peers might have been surprised at his victory at Muirfield, not just because of his long-held aversion to links golf. PGA Tour players surveyed in June at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club said they believe resilience is a trait that can be learned. But one pointed out it can also slip away as a player ages if he becomes beaten down by his past or loses the exuberance of his youth.
That is obviously not the case with Mickelson, 43.
“You have to work harder on that as you get older,” Stuart Appleby said at Congressional. “When you’re younger, you’re a bit more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and I guess you’re a bit more bullet proof. [When you’re] more susceptible to the bullets, you have to learn to take on the burden and that can chip away at your confidence.
“As you get older you need to work harder on thinking more like the young guy instead of getting caught up in some older-man habits. Guys who play well into their 40s and 50s have to have a very clean, fresh outlook on the game. You can’t be fatigued by your career or anything that happened up to that point. You have to be energized for the next tournament, the next week, the next tip that you and your coach are working on.”
One of the headliners of this week’s $8.75 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Mickelson said what he worked on with swing coach Butch Harmon on Saturday morning at the British Open finally clicked on Sunday. But he also acknowledged the emotional swing between the two majors and how he used the disappointment at the U.S. Open to fuel him.
“Being so down after the U.S. Open, to come back and use it as motivation … in a matter of a month to turn it around, it really feels amazing,” Mickelson told reporters in Scotland.
“You have to be resilient in this game because losing is such a big part of it. After losing the U.S. Open, it could have easily gone south, where I was so deflated I had a hard time coming back. But I had been playing some of the best [golf] in my career. I didn’t want it to stop me from potential victories this year. I’m glad it didn’t because I worked a little bit harder and in a matter of a month I’m able to change entirely the way I feel.”
Mickelson had company in the devastation he experienced after Merion. In June at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., Bubba Watson led coming into the par-3 16th hole. But he put his tee shot in the water and his next flew the green, his triple-bogey 6 opening the door for Ken Duke to win in a playoff.
Going into the final round of the Canadian Open this weekend, the 54-hole leader/co-leader has won only 12-of-28 72-hole events this year on the tour.
Last year in the Bridgestone Invitational, Jim Furyk led for 71 holes, only to double-bogey the last, and Keegan Bradley rallied from a 6-stroke deficit over the final 13 holes. It was the second time heartbreak struck Furyk at Firestone, where he lost a seven-hole playoff to Tiger Woods in 2001.
Bradley’s triumph continued a tough year for Furyk, who led at the U.S. Open before bogeying two of the last three holes and tying for fourth. But even after getting knocked down, Furyk continues to put himself in contention. His 16 tour victories include nine in the 21 times that he has held the 54-hole lead. He is 12-for-25 when the five-round Las Vegas Invitational is added.
“I’ve never had an issue with bouncing back from a poor round or a poor shot or a poor tournament,” Furyk said at Congressional. “Nick Faldo really struggled early in his career and got abused by the press. His nickname was ‘El Foldo’ for quite a while, and he turned around and won six majors. He got the last laugh. I think he told the press he wanted to thank them from the heart of his bottom, which I thought was rather funny.
“You’re going to fail in this sport. You play 25 events a year for 20 years. You win 20 events, one event a year, you’re going to be in the hall of fame without a doubt. That means you’re going to lose 24 times a year for 20 years — 480 losses — it’s just part of the game. You learn from those mistakes. You figure out what you could have done, how you could have improved and you’re better for it the next time around. The guys who have been successful, we’re just tougher than that. I think I’m tougher than that.”
Bob Toski, 86, a former tour player now coaching golf in Boca Raton, Fla., doesn’t believe an emotional loss on Sunday should send a golfer in the tank.
“If you had three good days and one bad day, should that be a detriment to the next time you tee it up and play? Why the hell should you get so upset?” Toski said in a recent telephone interview.
“Everybody wants everything right now, and everything’s got to be perfect. It doesn’t work that way. You learn from that one bad day. The bad day is usually on Sunday when you couldn’t handle the heat. Once you get in the heat more often you learn how to handle it. Exposure creates composure.”
Most of the players who spoke at Congressional think they’ve learned from experience and are better equipped to bounce back.
“I think everybody is bad the first few times they do it,” Brandt Snedeker said. “You don’t know how to handle it, you don’t know what went wrong and you want to fix it right away. [When] you lose a lot more, you figure out how to do it.”
Stewart Cink isn’t sure he’s learned how, believing instead he’s become “somewhat numb” to the disappointment.
“No one’s escaping it. You don’t really ever get completely used to it,” Cink said at the AT&T National. “You get your identity wrapped up so much in your scores and your results that when you have a [moment] like [when] Bubba triple-bogeyed 16 to lose, it’s like an assault on your sense of self. It’s really tough to separate and keep everything detached from that. You hit some shots, they didn’t go where you wanted them to go and you hit more than you should have on the hole; it’s really not an emotional thing. But because of how much it means to us it becomes emotional.”
The final round of the 2001 U.S Open was perhaps Cink’s hardest day. He missed an 18-inch bogey putt on No. 18 at Southern Hills as he was trying to clear the way for Retief Goosen, only to see Goosen three-putt from 12 feet. Cink fell 1 shot short of a playoff and Goosen prevailed.
“That was one of those moments where I was humiliated,” said Cink, the 2004 Bridgestone Invitational champ. “It’s not like I didn’t try. I didn’t do anything stupid, I just didn’t execute. I thought at the time it might be tough to get over and it did sort of haunt my mind for a little while. Whenever I got in contention, when I had a putt that long, it went through my mind.
“That’s natural and it’s part of sports and you have to overcome it. It took a few years.”
Cink went on to win a major, the 2009 British Open, beating 59-year-old Tom Watson in a four-hole playoff.
Hunter Mahan, 31, the 2010 Bridgestone Invitational champion, has found himself on the leaderboard at recent majors. He has yet to win one, but six of his 45 top-10s have come in Grand Slam events.
“I just don’t take that much out of a Sunday or a few holes or whatever,” Mahan said at the AT&T National. “It’s just days, they’re just rounds. You can’t overthink this stuff.
“When I was younger I wish I could have played freer without so much focus on one round or one tournament meaning so much to me. As a pro you realize there’s always another week and it’s what you take from those weeks that are most important. You can’t minimize what you’ve done for 70-something holes or 54 holes.”
Furyk said dealing with disappointment isn’t the toughest part of his job, it’s going in front of a television camera two minutes after he finishes when it happens.
“To sit in front of millions of people at that moment when you’re mad, you don’t always want to say or do the right thing,” Furyk said. “To collect yourself, that’s the hard part.
“A day or two later, there’s people who have far worse things to worry about than losing a golf tournament.”
When he walked into a glum media room after falling to Cink at Turnberry, crowd favorite Watson was quick to point that out.
“This ain’t a funeral, you know,” Watson said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.