In Praise of the Also-ran Nothing is more fun than watching Phil Mickelson crash and burn

April 01, 2002

Failure, especially in a country full of strivers and
opportunists like the U.S., can be greatly underrated. Take Evel
Knievel, who on Sept. 8, 1974, endeavored to ride his
rocket-bike, Sky-Cycle X-2, 350 mph off a 108-foot-long ramp,
soar 2,000 feet above the three-quarter-mile-wide Snake River
Canyon and land on the other side. He crashed seconds after
takeoff, landing 413 feet below in a yard sale of sideburns,
sunglasses and red-white-and-blue motorcycle leathers, but was
this outcome more interesting than if he'd simply cleared
another row of school buses? You bet.

That brings us to Phil Mickelson, golf's Evel genius, who
continues to try more coral-brained stunts than the rest of the
top 100 players on the Tour combined. His most recent may have
been his bravest (dumbest?), and keep in mind that this is a man
who, while leading by two strokes in the 1996 Nortel Open,
intentionally skipped his ball across a water hazard. Mickelson
was trailing Tiger Woods by a shot in the final round of the
recent Bay Hill Invitational when he tried to thin a four-iron
under branches, over water and onto a green 180 yards away. He
later asserted, lamely, that going for the green was his only
play. Everyone else knew better. The shot was damn near
impossible--there was no reason to try it, other than to see if it
could be done--and Mickelson, predictably, skulled his ball into
the drink nowhere near its intended destination.

Mickelson is fighting something in himself, a seemingly
compulsive recklessness, and his internal battle is fascinating
to watch. This is partly because the drama hits so close to
home: Who among us isn't fighting something in ourselves? And
it's partly because Mickelson desires to win majors and go down
as one of the greatest players of all time, and that creates a
special kind of tension each time he looks down at his ball in
some impossible predicament and decides whether to go for it or,
just this once, exercise prudence.

Mickelson's story is, hands down, the most compelling in golf. It
resonates like the old Peanuts gag in which Charlie Brown kept
trying to kick the football only to have it pulled away by Lucy,
and it will continue to resonate as long as Mickelson keeps
trying. For he knows that all of his heartache and frustration
would be expunged from the record with one success. Just one!

Do you really want Mickelson to fire his caddie, Jim (Bones)
McKay, and replace him with someone who could perhaps steer him
away from trouble? Do you want Mickelson to have an epiphany and
become--gasp!--like Tiger, a near perfect closer who almost never
beats himself? No way.

Neil Steinberg points out in his 1994 book, Complete and Utter
Failure: A Celebration of Also-rans, Runners-up, Never-weres and
Total Flops, that throughout history "the second-placers and
also-rans were sometimes better, more interesting, even more
worthy, than those whose combination of luck, effort and
circumstance for some reason brought success. George Leigh
Mallory was a handsome, romantic figure who wrote poetry as he
trekked up the side of Mount Everest. Edmund Hillary was a drab
New Zealand beekeeper. But it was Hillary who made it to the top
of Everest and back, immortalizing his name, while Mallory, who
died trying, is the answer to a trivia question."

Mickelson is Mallory, losing to everyone who takes the studied,
reasoned path to success. He's Don Quixote attacking the
windmill, Icarus soaring for a closer view of the sun. Multiple
failures? Thwarted ambitions? Hey, we've been there.

That is why each time there's a new installment of Mickelson's
misadventures, it's the talk of golf. Last season Mickelson
entered the final round of a tournament either leading or within
two strokes of the lead nine times and won only twice. It was
maddening to watch, but we did. We respond to failure. We know
how it feels. We want to run out to wherever Mickelson and Bones
are standing, scratching their heads, on the precipice of another
bout of strategic amnesia, and yell, "No, no! Don't do it! You're
only behind by a stroke! Pitch out!" Then he does his usual
craziness, as we feared he would, and we're half mad at ourselves
for not intervening, half fascinated by our powerful visceral
response.

If a golfer can elicit such passion from fans, can what he's
doing really be a bad thing? Those of us focused on the endgame,
keep this in mind: Few remember whether Charlie Brown ever kicked
the ball. (He didn't.) We remember that he tried like hell.

COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS UNFULPHILLED Mickelson's compulsive recklessness could keep him from ever winning a major title.

We want to yell, "No, no! Don't do it! You're only behind by
a stroke! Pitch out!" And then he does just what we feared he
would do.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)