Lost in the hype and hyperbole of this year’s Masters Tournament was the simplicity of a decades old rivalry.
Since they were young prodigies in Southern California, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have been rivals. Their lives like their games have diverged onto separate paths. One has become a cocky recluse, refusing to partake in the usual accord that is afforded to fans. The other a humble ambassador who is always willing to sign an autograph with a skip in his step, and a smile on his face as wide as the brim of his sponsors cap. Both are fan favorites who have chosen different tact’s to achieve their positions.
Since the much ballyhooed incident that caused the veil of secrecy around Tiger Woods to fall like pollen from an azalea tree, we have seen a man reach the depths of depravity. This week we saw him reach for the heights of greatness once again. Humbled and focused he showed us the character that fans had started to wonder was just another façade like his public image. But every media outlet has focused on his struggle. Over analyzed every frustrated gaff he made. And I may be the only writer this week that finds this subject over exposed. I’ll give him a break.
Receiving less attention during this same time span was Phil and Amy Mickelson going through another type of personal hell. The antithesis of the Tiger and Elin drama. Rather than turning a blind eye to the vows of marriage, Phil Mickelson has shown ultimate commitment to his partner. And just as he plays the game of golf, he has carried himself humbly, never seeking fanfare, but never shying away from a handshake. Forcing a smile on his face even while the demon of cancer ravaged his wife’s body, and wreaked havoc on his own psyche.
Amy Mickelson has stood by her husband through many tormented years of professional strife. She stood by him equally when he held the moniker “The greatest player to never win a major”, as she does now that he is a three time Masters winner. Saturday night, (when in years past Phil would be in some Zen like trance with Bones MacKay preparing for the Sunday showdown) Phil’s daughter broke her wrist rollerblading. Amy Mickelson lay in bed, fighting off the abnormal cell growth with all her might. Normally she would have taken care of the family at such a pinnacle moment. But this time Phil, the humble husband, called the tournament doctor and asked if he would come in at 10pm to take care of his wounded daughter. Some people would see this moment as a distraction. But for a man with a champions mindset, this is just a moment to exhibit character.
Psychology plays a major role in the game of golf. It is often said that a caddy is, more than any other duty, an on course psychologist for the golfer. And golf, of all our beloved sports, is the most personal. Sporting events are reality television for men. The relationship between fan and player is more visceral in golf than any other sport. It may be due to the fact that there is no helmet hiding the facial expressions and frustrations of the player from the fans. It may be due to the fact that fans are often only a few feet away from the player during any of the 60-70 something shots they hit in a round. But this dynamic between player and fan reveals itself most obviously in the fact that any amateur golfer when in a slump will go out and buy their favorite golfers clubs hoping for a quick and expensive cure.
For those reasons, it is no surprise that Tiger Woods chose to take an extended leave of absence so as not to reveal the torment he was going through to the fans. No one can blame him for that tact. Any salesman would not want the customer to see them stripped bare. Phil chose again to follow a different path. He continued to play, and play well. And again, the fans embraced him for it. He didn’t seek attention, other than adding an embroidered pink ribbon on his cap. But he also did not shrink away from his duties as an ambassador to the sport.
On this Sunday afternoon, the titans of the sport took their respective position. Again Phil battled from behind to win, showing the character and will he is known for. And Tiger, again, could not win a major unless he was well in the lead.
On this Sunday afternoon, there was no more hiding this personal strife. At the end of the day, one man stood in a lonely spotlight. While the other held his debilitated wife, center stage, showing that good men do in fact finish first.
On this Sunday afternoon, we saw once again what makes golf great. In golf it’s not about having the most brawn or bravado. It’s not about having the most sinew or swagger. In golf, the champion has the most character and honor.
On this Sunday afternoon, in more ways than one, the better man emerged victorious.