Some People Never Learn

Host Kevin M. was lucky enough to score tickets to Friday’s round of the U.S. Open at Congressional. In his infinite wisdom, he chose to spend part of his time there following one of the marquee groups of the opening rounds (he also spent part of his time there learning that his golf swing is beyond the help of humans and computers combined). It consisted of two of the great, young up and comers in the game today, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy - two players who have seen their names at the top of a lot of leader boards in Majors lately. Rounding out the group was a precocious young whippersnapper by the name of Phil Mickelson - or as he is known to his legions of loyal followers, simply Phil. It is a testament to his hard work and ability that Phil is one of the few athletes (outside of Brazil) that are recognized by only one name. Another athlete that fits that bill happens to play the same sport as Phil. But while Tiger has been Tiger since he was banging home puts in that goofy hat in his dad’s home videos, Phil has had to earn his title over the long haul. And he earned it by brushing aside another title that has seen lesser golfers crumble under its weight – Best Player Never to Win a Major. Four Major Championship Titles later, Phil finds himself at the top of his sport. The problem is... he should have twice that number. And his failures can be entirely linked to one utterly frustrating flaw: his complete inability to dial it back even one notch, ever. Ask a Phil follower and they’ll tell you that’s why they love him. He’s always true to himself. He’s always going to play the game his way, consequences be damned. But that’s also what drives me completely INSANE.

Why I Hate Phil

I hate the underdeveloped physique. I hate his stupid striped pants. I hate the dorky half fist pump celebration. I hate the long and overly introspective answers to post round questions. I’m sorry. That’s just how I feel. I know most of you out there love him. You only need to listen to the galleries at Congressional this week to know that. While his playing partner was busy blowing away the field, the loudest roars were still reserved for Phil. As Kevin pointed out via the Twitter (how he did so is a mystery since cell phones are STRICTLY prohibited on the course), even when Rory and Phil hit the exact same shot - roars for Phil… polite golf clap for Rory. I get it, OK. Maybe you are like my father, a confirmed Tiger hater, and you look at happy-go-lucky Phil as the antithesis of everything Eldrick. Or maybe you fell in love with him back when we was the lovable loser – cell phone in bag, ready to drop everything and jet off at a moment’s notice to witness the birth of his first child, despite the fact that he was in contention to win the U.S. Open, and despite the fact that he was still carrying the dreaded BPNTWAM tag. But just when I find myself pulling for the guy, he does something… so… so incredibly STUPID.

Phil is arguably the most talented player currently playing. (Young Rory might be trying to overtake him but he’ll need to do something about that nasty hook that seems to crop up under pressure.) He has the ability to pull off some of the most remarkable shots the game has ever seen. Two years ago, at the Masters, Number 13, Par 5, second shot, behind a tree, off the pine straw, he somehow knocked it to within five feet. He went on to win this third Green Jacket. Everyone remembers that shot. It is, perhaps, the signature shot of his career. My thought? WHY ARE YOU EVEN TRYING TO HIT IT ON THE GREEN THERE? The fact that he pulled it off does not excuse the fact that the shot, as conceived, was completely CRAZY.

But it’s a different shot at Augusta, a year earlier that sticks in my mind. Phil had just finished one of the greatest front nines in Masters’ history to put himself back in the tournament. The 12th hole is a 155 yard Par 3. It is a simple 9 iron or wedge for someone with Phil’s length. But Phil never makes things easy on himself. He chose to hit a 6 iron, three quarter punch. He fatted it and put it in Rae’s Creek. The announcers and I were baffled by what he was even trying to do. In his attempt to keep the ball below the tree line and out of the tricky wind that victimizes many players on that hole, Phil chose to hit a shot not even conceived of by another player. That’s the thing with Phil, he’s constantly outthinking himself. Sometimes it works – putting two drivers in the bag at Augusta in 2006. Sometimes it doesn’t – no driver in the bag at the Torrey Pines in 2008. (Or hitting practice shot after practice shot out of the rough at Oakmont to the point of injuring his wrist!) When he wins, it’s only because he got out of his own way long way enough to avoid tripping over his own two feet. After the shot the cameras showed Phil with an almost embarrassed look on his face. He looked like a scolded child who knew what he attempted was wrong. But unlike a child, Phil NEVER SEEMS TO LEARN.

His most famous blow-up came at the 2006 U.S. Open at Wingfoot. Standing on the tee box of the 72nd hole, holding a one shot lead, needing only a par to secure victory, Phil chose to hit driver. His tee shot was so far left, it ricocheted off the corporate hospitality tent. Still, he attempted to go for the green on his second shot. It hit a tree and did not advance more than 50 yards. His next shot plugged in the green side bunker. He wound up with a double bogey and finished tied for second. Afterwards, Phil famously said, “I am such an idiot.” It is statements like this that fool some people into believing that Phil is learning; that he’s evolving as a player. But here is where we arrive at the crux of the problem. I would bet you a thousand dollars that put in that position again Phil would do that exact same thing. He would still hit driver. He would still try to go for the green. My proof? I’m glad you asked.

Fast forward to Friday. A quick glance at the score card shows the Phil and Rory each carded double-bogies on the 18th hole. But the way they arrived at that score could not have been more different. Rory ended up in the green side pond because he pulled his second shot that was meant for the front right of the green – a perfectly safe play gone wrong. Phil ended up in the water because after his drive went way left (where have we heard that before), his slicing line drive, from the gallery, between two trees, skipped 100 yards down the fairway and into the pond. Andy North commented, “That was a foot from being an incredible shot.” Yes Andy. It was. And I might have been impressed if that shot didn’t bring back memories of all the other shots Phil has hit that have made me exclaim, “WHY IS HE EVEN TRYING THAT!?” Oh right. Because he’s Phil. And he never learns. And that’s why I hate him.

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