"Right or wrong, I'm more compelled by champions who during competition -- and in its immediate aftermath -- approach winning and losing like life and death. Invariably, they are the greatest players, and it's not a coincidence."
Competitive golf always hurts somebody. That reality is the flip side of the old saw about every shot making somebody happy. But sometimes the game hurts somebody so much that no one is really happy.
That seemed to be the case at Royal Lytham after Adam Scott bogeyed the last four holes to lose by one to Ernie Els. Even Els -- or maybe especially Els -- felt a profound empathy in the aftermath.
Losses are sad for different reasons. The most basic is when the player who most deserves victory can't quite handle the pressure at the end. The pathos increases when the loser has a poignant personal story and/or especially when he is well liked.
I can think of many such losses, including Ed Sneed's at Augusta in 1979, Mike Reid's at the 1989 PGA and Jean Van de Velde's at the 1999 British Open -- all created by disastrous finishes that undid career performances. In the broad sense, Scott's loss -- because he is majorless, because he is a quality person and because he was playing the best golf of his life -- falls into this category. But for me, the sadness increases according to the greatness of the loser. If a self-inflicted loss messes up a historic player's ultimate legacy, especially near the end of his career when the chances for glory have run out, that's when I get sad.
It happens each time I read about how a 50-year-old Harry Vardon lost a four-stroke lead on the final nine of the 1920 U.S. Open. Ben Hogan losing his bid for a fifth U.S. Open at Olympic to Jack Fleck in 1955 will always rank high on the sadness meter, as will Arnold Palmer at Olympic in 1966, Doug Sanders at St. Andrews in 1970, Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach in 1982, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman at Augusta in 1986 and 1996. For me, the poignancy was even higher with Raymond Floyd, then 47, at the 1990 Masters, and of course, 59-year-old Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009.
One of the marks of Tiger Woods' greatness is that he has never suffered such a loss, even when he was beaten by Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA. When/if it does happen to him, especially with the clock ticking more loudly as he chases Nicklaus' major record, I for one will be sad.
It will hurt a little less if the man who beats him is himself a historic player. It has been some solace to Palmer that he was vanquished by Casper, perhaps the most underrated player ever. It helps Sanders that he had Nicklaus, Nicklaus that he had Watson, Ballesteros that he had Nicklaus, and Norman that he had Faldo.
But Hogan's Fleck, or Norman's Mize, or for that matter, Els' Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004, make the story sadder.
Fortunately for Scott, he has Els, who now has four majors, a number that is more commensurate with his talent, as it matches Phil Mickelson and gives him a shot at matching Ballesteros' five or even Faldo's six. And Els will always look like more than just a lucky benefactor because of his own well-chronicled bobbles of golf's biggest prizes.
Scott also seems to have the kind of balanced temperament that -- while seemingly lacking the kind of drive that distinguishes the ultra-greats -- will deal with the disappointment without being haunted.
Mickelson -- even while producing a Hall of Fame career -- has always struck me as having a similar temperament, which is why I felt worse for Colin Montgomerie than I did for Phil after Winged Foot in 2006. Mickelson's 72nd- hole gaffe might have been bigger, but I sensed that the more embattled, not as talented but seemingly hungrier Monty was going to hurt more.
Right or wrong, I'm more compelled by champions who during competition -- and in its immediate aftermath -- approach winning and losing like life and death. Invariably, they are the greatest players, and it's not a coincidence. They're the ones who've accepted that the fullest investment in winning means that losing will hurt that much more. It's why golf's saddest losses happen to winners.
Scott produced enough sadness for a golfing lifetime late in the final round at Lytham. Still, I hope he prepares himself to handle more of the same in the future. It's what winners do.