Defeat is never fun.
Every player’s dream is to blitz the field and win by six shots or even 10. That, however, doesn’t happen very often. There are myriad reasons why it is easier to win by coming from behind than it is to protect a one-shot lead on the back nine coming down the stretch. That’s not to say Marc Leishman doesn’t deserve the Travelers Championship hardware – he shot 62 in the final round of a PGA Tour event. But what struck me most on Sunday at TPC River Highlands was the reaction of those players who thought the tournament was theirs to win or to lose.
“I pretty much knew that I was going to miss that putt,” Tim Clark said of the two-footer he lipped out on No. 17 in the final round that, if made, would have given him a chance to force a playoff. The only reason that Tim was in position to win was because of what Charley Hoffman had done a half hour before on the same hole.
“That tee shot just doesn’t set up well for me, I would like to hit a draw there but the shot doesn’t really let you. It was just a bad shot,” Hoffman said of a tee shot that found the water and led to double bogey.
Say what you will of either player’s performance down the stretch. Say that the pressure got to them. Say whatever you want because what they said of themselves is far worse than anything I can write or say. Both men were obviously disappointed, and it’s probably safe to say both are still feeling it today. Still, they were so honest about what happened that it seems heartless to pile on. They didn’t blame anyone else, they didn’t make excuses. As my old pro would say, “They took it like men,” which meant something different to a man born around the turn of the last century.
Hoffman went on to say that the double bogey on 17 isn’t the one that he is going to remember. It ultimately was the bogey at 18 that cost him a spot in a playoff. And in many ways, that is understandable.
The Travelers was just another example of what has been a very odd year in professional golf. The double bogey, bogey finish by Hoffman is barely a blip on the radar compared to Kyle Stanley’s 8 at the Farmer’s or I.K. Kim missing a putt from one foot on the 72nd hole of a major (the LPGA tour’s Kraft Nabisco Championship) to fall back into a playoff and eventually lose the tournament.
I am willing to bet that you have already forgotten that Bubba was three shots back starting the final round at Augusta. Can you name the player that was leading Sunday morning? It was Peter Hanson. Even major champions Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell couldn’t get it done at Olympic last week in the U.S. Open. Neither of those players made any excuses, either. Some thought that Furyk’s comments after concerning the tee at 16 were unnecessary. But Furyk was just being honest, he was hardly making excuses.
We expect those who contend and come up short to handle the situation with more grace than most of us can muster on our best days, let alone our worst. Rory McIIroy was applauded last year for the way that he handled the crushing defeat at the Masters. He received louder applause when he won the U.S. Open a couple months later.
Handling defeat is part of the game. Handling it well is something else, and something that we shouldn’t take for granted. If Clark or Hoffman had been anything less than gracious after their rounds, they would have been lambasted for both their performance on the course and off. But they weren’t. They took responsibility and blamed themselves.
There may not be anything harder in sports than leading a golf tournament and winning from the front. There are just too many factors, too many things that can go wrong when there are a dozen or two dozen guys that can have everything go right and catch you. Knowing that doesn’t ease the disappointment. Knowing that just makes you want to get it done that much more the next time. Knowing that makes you work that much harder so there even is a next time.