Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 36

I don't know why I like watching golf, but I do.  I always have.  Only the four majors, and usually only on the weekends, but still.  I tend to make an effort.  Now that I have DVR, it's much easier.  I can record the whole day's competition, and then parcel it out in thirty minute increments whenever I feel like I want to take a break.

I don't play golf (I have.  But not in a long time.  And not well) and I don't really have some predisposition towards liking it.  But it's a strangely enticing viewing experience.  It's a reflective game, obviously, and that brings entirely new levels of stress and pressure to the people playing it.  The collapse yesterday of the 54-hole leader, Rory McIlroy, illustrated perfectly how difficult the mental part of the game can be.  It was also one of the more heartbreaking things I've seen in sports.  McIlroy had a four-shot lead coming in to Sunday.  For those who don't follow golf, that's close to insurmountable--assuming, of course, that McIlroy could just not make mistakes (play par golf, in other words).  If he could play at one or two under (which he had been doing all week), he was assured of winning.

Instead he shot eight over par.  An 80.  That is not at all good.  It's a score an amateur would shoot.  It's the equivalent of a baseball pitcher giving up four home runs in the first inning.  Except when a pitcher starts out that bad, his manager will take him out of the game.  In golf, you have to keep playing.  McIlroy's only 21 years old; it was his first experience being in the lead of a major tournament and you got a sense that he fully expected to win it.  Instead, he fell apart--on national TV.  He shot a triple bogey on one hole, and a double on another.   He was tight, he was struggling, his shots were all going in places he didn't intend.  It was a total meltdown.  There was a moment--I think on the 12th?--when he'd shanked yet another drive.  He kneeled down for a moment and covering his head with his hat, rested it on the butt of his golf club.  He was about to start crying.  He had realized at that moment that it was too late; no matter how well he played for the rest of the round, he couldn't win.  The dream was over.  And we were watching him think those things.  The mask of cool imperturability that most pro athletes wear had slipped.  Not just slipped, it had burst into flames.  It was impossible not to feel sympathy for him.

I had to teach 20 year olds when I was a grad student, and one thing that surprised me (and lead to me making some teaching mistakes) was how emotionally fragile so many of them turned out to be.  One of the commentators yesterday, watching McIlroy, said something along the same lines; "we are all of more fragile than we like to admit."  And I thought: yes.  Great insight, Roger.  (Or whoever).

In the movies, McIlroy would come back in a few months having learned from the experience.  Newly toughened, he would have a similar chance at the US Open, but this time he would win.  And McIlroy might do that; he seemed very professional in the interviews afterward, all of which he handled with grace and class.  But pro sports are not the movies, and sometimes people don't recover (especially in golf).  There are dozens of stories of people who have a terrible meltdown in a key moment on national TV who never recover.  I don't think that'll happen to McIlroy, but you never know.

And then, at the end of it all, a South African won.  I don't know why, but that made me grouchy.


JMW said...

I love this post, especially the point about fragility and the joke about "Roger or whoever." My only quibble is that a four-stroke lead for a 21-year-old going into Masters Sunday is very solid, but not exactly insurmountable. It's a shame he flamed out so totally, though. Poor kid.

ANCIANT said...

You're right, of course. I even thought about that when I wrote it. What I guess I meant was that it seemed insurmountable, given the way he'd played the previous 54 holes. I think if he'd shot par, he would have won. I realize that the winning score ended up being 14 under, but I think that if the others had looked up all day and seen him holding steady they might not have shot as well themselves. But, obviously, that may well be wrong.