September 8, 2009

When Life Intrudes, Golf Training Helps Players Cope

Phil Mickelson's wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Phil Mickelson's wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer.

As someone who deals with professional golfers a lot, I'm often asked, "Do you like them as people?"

The question suggests that there might be a lot not to like. And sure, I can come up with plenty of examples of vain, petulant, selfish and generally spoiled behavior.

Some of it I excuse as the unfortunate result of living in a bubble of entitlement. The rest I put down to an increasing realization that playing competitive golf at the highest level takes absolutely everything a player has got, and that a lot of that everything -- the intensity and the insularity -- is not going to be pretty.

But there's a bigger part that gets my respect. It's the way the great majority of players -- and always the champions -- are able to stoically accept the ridiculously small difference between not just winning and losing, but between earning a lot of money or much less, or making or missing the cut. Tom Watson was a paragon at Turnberry, but sometimes the most affecting examples occur in deserted locker rooms late on Friday afternoon.

What makes such aplomb compelling is that it implies a capacity to gracefully handle much more in the real world. Although I know it offends some to compare the playing of a game to matters of life and death, I would submit that being a competitive golfer is wonderful training for responding affirmatively to fate.

Consider the events of the last few months. Seve Ballesteros, recovering from four cranial surgeries and chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor, laid out hopes of playing in the British Open next year at St. Andrews. If he does, think Muhammad Ali's poignant lighting of the Olympic torch.

Ken Green lost his girlfriend, his brother, his dog and his lower right leg after his RV went down an embankment and hit a tree. Now hoping to compete wearing a prosthesis, Green is girding himself for a return to life with the same internal armor that allowed him to sustain a career while battling clinical depression. "I am so proud to have been a professional golfer for 30 years," he says.

Phil Mickelson learned that his wife, Amy, 37, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He channeled his emotions into playing at the U.S. Open at Bethpage, ultimately falling two strokes short to finish runner-up in the championship for a record fifth time. Yet Mickelson's mood was peaceful as he signed autographs for 30 minutes after the round, as though he was taking the experience as preparation for a bigger test. After signing his last autograph, he told the remaining crowd, "Thanks for a great week." Two weeks later, Mickelson learned that his mother, Mary, 67, was also diagnosed with breast cancer.

For his 16 seasons as a journeyman on the PGA and Nationwide tours, Chris Smith has been known for humor in the face of adversity. (He listed "whistling show tunes" under "special interests.") In June, his wife, Beth, 42, was killed in a crash that also seriously injured his 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. At the funeral, it was conversations with tour brethren that most helped Smith look forward.

It's tradition. Ben Hogan, Skip Alexander, Shirley Englehorn and Jim Nelford were all maimed in accidents that curtailed or ended their careers. Cancer victims Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Heather Farr, Rod Funseth and Larry Gilbert were all still playing when they became terminally ill. Gene Littler, Paul Azinger, Arnold Palmer, Hubert Green, Jim Colbert and Raymond Floyd all saw the disease take a lot out of them. None bewailed their plight. Quite the contrary. During his recovery, Palmer began a public campaign urging men to check their prostates. As Farr endured multiple treatments, she explained, "You just play through it."

The model remains Bobby Jones. After being struck with a disease that confined him to a wheelchair for more than a decade, Jones embodied Kipling's enduring line about meeting Triumph and Disaster and treating those two imposters just the same. Or in Jones' words, "We all have to play the ball as it lies."

Just as the bubble of entitlement conditions the players, so does the game. So yes, I like most of the players, though admire is a better word. For their playing, of course. But also for much more.