April 20, 2009

The Complicated Calculus Of Losing

Why losers on the pro tours intrigue us as much as winners

Gene Sarazen, who grew up hard and won big, had a sharp opinion of how accounting in his business worked. "The life of a professional athlete is precarious at best," Sarazen wrote in his 1950 autobiography Thirty Years of Championship Golf. "Win and they carry you to the clubhouse on their shoulders; lose and you pay the caddies in the dark." In a new century things are a bit different. Losing can be lucrative but beyond greater consolation prizes, there seems to be more fascination with -- and appreciation for -- golfers who come up short, all the more for those who do so with their chin up at least until they step into the private shadows of defeat.

While Masters champ Angel Cabrera returned home to Argentina, showing off his chaqueta verde, many people felt, deeply, for Kenny Perry, for Chad Campbell, for Phil Mickelson -- especially for Perry, who at 48 came oh-so-close to becoming the oldest winner of a major. Perry's run and how he handled losing struck a chord with many, as did Mickelson's performance at the '06 U.S. Open, Paul Goydos' at the '08 Players and Rocco Mediate's at the '08 U.S. Open. Runners-up in team sports -- whether it's the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl or Michigan State in NCAA men's basketball -- don't create the same vibe.

Amateurs who have choked playing for five bucks are quick with a figurative handkerchief for pros who can't close the deal trying to make history. Golfers lose a lot, a point obscured by Tiger Woods' dominance. Woods has won about 27 percent of his starts on the PGA Tour, a success rate only Ben Hogan (22 percent) among male golfers even comes close to matching. Annika Sorenstam won 24 percent of her LPGA starts, slightly better than an earlier great, Mickey Wright (21 percent).

Perry has won about 2 percent of the tournaments in which he has played, putting him in the company of Raymond Floyd, Davis Love III and Lanny Wadkins (3 percent each). Climb the legend ladder and you get Greg Norman (6 percent), Tom Watson (7), Arnold Palmer and Vijay Singh (8), Billy Casper and Phil Mickelson (9), Jack Nicklaus (12), Sam Snead (15) and Byron Nelson (18). If a player has a long career and wins three of every 100 tournaments he enters, he is going to be knocking on the door of the Hall of Fame. Win six of every 100, and he gets a key.

Major championships usually are part of the picture for players who win regularly by golf's miserly standards. There are only 10 active golfers younger than 50 with five or more PGA Tour victories who haven't won a professional major, a roster that includes Stuart Appleby (eight victories), K.J. Choi and Sergio Garcia (seven each), and Adam Scott (six). With 13 wins Perry has by far the most of that group, which made him overdue at Augusta National, 13 years after he lost a playoff in the PGA Championship to Mark Brooks.

The superstitious-minded could hang on Perry's relevant numbers, but consider that the two men with the most wins without a major, Harry Cooper of the PGA Tour and Colin Montgomerie of the European Tour, have 31 victories apiece. "First you've got to be good, but then you've got to be lucky," said Cooper, whose stellar record of the 1920s and 1930s does include a triumph in the 1934 Western Open, a de facto major of the era.

Winning a major wasn't a lingering question for Nicklaus, whose 1962 U.S. Open playoff victory over Palmer was his first tour win -- though he had been steeled by top U.S. Open finishes as an amateur (second in '60, and T-4 in '61). "People don't realize how often you have to come in second in order to finish first," Nicklaus observed during his prime, when he was busy accumulating 19 second-place finishes in majors to go with his 18 victories.

A golfer can finish 17th every week and be anonymously comfortable. But if he comes close to winning, if he puts himself in position where failure means much more than different numerals on a deposit slip, everything changes. After Hubert Green -- wielding his famous putter that looked like a fireplace poker -- missed a short putt on the 72nd hole to lose the 1978 Masters to hard-charging Gary Player, he sounded like a golfing Plato. "Gary's the guy who played good enough to win it," Green said. "I'm the guy who played just good enough to blow it."

We're always going to be intrigued by that second guy and the complicated calculus of losing.