Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Phil, Bill, and Jean - That Is Why It's Called Risk

While catching up on my blogroll this evening, I came across an interesting article that I found myself taking some exception to, i.e. a provocative article about a good topic. The post in question is from the Waggle Room blog and is titled "Bigger Idiot: Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot or Bill Belichick Last Night?"

For those unaware what this article might be referring to, on Sunday Night Football this past weekend, Bill Belichick, the well-known head coach of the New England Patriots football squad, made the decision to go for a first down on a 4th & 2 on their own 30 with just over 2 minutes left playing with a 6 point lead over the Indianapolis Colts in Indy. The play called was a quick out from Tom Brady to Kevin Faulk that was almost, barely, good enough, but after a brief bobble netted about a half of a yard, and gave the Colts the ball on the Pats' 30 with two minutes remaining and needing seven points to win.

I trust you can guess from the title of the article above, or from reading or watching anything sports related over the last 48 hours, that the Colts did indeed score the necessary 7 points, and Belichick quickly grew a little chin beard, short horns, and those crazy devil eyes (oh, wait, those were already there, they just became more apparent). Yes, for a change, Belichick was the goat, and lost what would have been a huge win for the Patriots.

If you hadn't already guessed, I'm not the biggest Bill Belichick fan (as if he cares), and I do think the decision was stupid (again, as if he cares). Bill Belichick has won 3 Super Bowls, and has coached the only 16-0 regular season record in NFL history. With the loss on Sunday night, his current team is 6-3, and still in good position to win the AFC East and once again head to the playoffs. I would bet a tremendous sum of money (OK, so right now I only have $22.64, but that's a lot for me) that Belichick and the Pats have already moved on to next Sunday's game against their rival Jets. So why can't the media? Because they are paid to talk and write about how Belichick should never have made that decision, that's why.

This is not a blog about football, though I do so very much love football. This is a golf blog, so on to the topic we go. The article in question (written by Ryan Ballengee) makes a comparison between Belichick's decision Sunday and Phil Mickelson's decision on the 18th hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot that ultimately cost him the major, and handed it to Geoff Ogilvy. In an unnecessarily cruel spin, he even brought poor old Jean van de Velde into the three-way comparison. Though I do find Mr. Ballengee's blog to be entertaining, I disagree with the comparison for the following reason; football is a team sport, and Belichick a coach while golf is an individual sport with Mickelson the player.

Sure, Phil has Jim "Bones" Mackay by his side playing the good angel on his right shoulder dressed in his all-whites while the dark-attired Phil sits on Phil's other shoulder suggesting a backwards flop shot swinging a draw biased driver right-handed from his knees, but Mackay is not Phil's coach. On the 18th hole of the 2006 U.S. Open, needing a par 4 to win, Phil made an aggressive decision and hit driver off the tee, blasting it well left and hitting a hospitality tent before making a not-temporary-enough home in the woods. He followed that shot with a mighty attempt to hit a high drawing 6-iron over the trees that found only more trees, then put the next shot, from an even more ghastly lie, into the greenside bunker. From there he hit a respectable bunker shot, but missed the putt that would have sent it to a playoff allowing Ogilvy to take the victory.

For many, many years, NFL football has been founded in risk-aversion, and while not very exciting to watch, did provide a blueprint for how to win. That blueprint has been changed quite a bit over the years, but if you look at Super Bowl winners over the last 10, 20, or even 30 years, the overwhelming majority of them based their teams on ball-protection, short, manageable plays, and solid defense. There are also certain decisions that should simply not be made, and one of those was made by Belichick the other night. What Belichick could not know was how each one of the 11 players on the offense felt at that moment, or more accurately, how pumped each of the 11 players on the Colts defense felt. Additionally, he had the lead of more than a Field Goal, and could have forced the opponent to earn points from much further away to win. The Patriots were not going to lose points in any scenario, and needed no additional points to win at the time of the decision. Ultimately, the failed execution gave the Colts a much easier task of earning the seven points they needed to win when three points was not an option.

Golf is different in a couple of key ways. First, golf is an individual sport. Nobody is more qualified to make decisions nor more responsible for the results than the player. The player must assess the situation, make many decisions, and execute the shot with nothing more than a variable amount of guidance and support from his or her caddie. It is also a sport where the idea is not to gain "points" but to lose them. Finally, golf is a sport where your opponents have no way of physically preventing you from playing well, though including some tackling or shot deflection might be fun to watch.

Though Phil Mickelson has been quoted calling himself an "idiot" for his decision, lots of players hit driver on 18, and he had been hitting it all weekend. It isn't like it was my foursome playing out there, hoping that our slices would only slice a little this time. Phil is one of the most talented golfers to have ever played the game, and has hit solid shots with his driver probably millions of times. On his second shot, he felt understandably trapped, and wanted to win so bad that he likely thought there was no way he wouldn't be successful with that 6-iron. Even standing in that bunker, I'll bet he thought he would force a playoff.

And, oh, by the way, Colin Montgomery could also have won the tournament on 18, but lost instead. Hey, guess what, Montgomery didn't hit driver off the tee, was hitting his second shot from the middle of the fairway, and also made a double bogey on the final hole to lose by one stroke. Had stodgy old Colin made birdie, and Phil a par, Phil would have lost anyway. And that isn't all, Jim Furyk missed a 5-foot putt for a par that would have forced a playoff as well. Phil was trying to play his best shots to win the tournament and failed to execute on a decision that is made all the time.

Yes, I consider myself a fan of Phil Mickelson. I have heard so many refer to him as plastic, insincere, and yes, stupid, but that isn't what I see. I see a man who is genuinely happy to be making an incredibly good living doing something he loves, and is very talented at. I see a man who loves his family, and understands the relationship he needs to have with his fans. I see a man who is incredibly generous be it the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation or his handing a fan $200 out of his pocket immediately after striking and breaking the fan's wristwatch with an errant shot during the 2006 Ford Championship. Perhaps most of all, I see a man who tries things on the golf course that we all wish we could do, in the heat of competition, on television! He succeeds with regularity, and many times each tournament saves himself several shots with his inventive and daring strategy. On that day in 2006, however, he failed to execute not a daring shot, or even a risky shot, but perhaps one that could have been played more conservatively, you know, like Monty did.

So, let's be careful how hard we are on risk takers in professional sports. After all, if they didn't take risks and fail once in a while, you could never write about how they should never have taken the risk and failed so that you wouldn't have to write about it...right?

Fairways and Greens!

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1 comment:

Chris said...

nice article
One was a call made by someone who was trying to find the best possible way to ensure victory... one was by someone trying to grab themselves a little bit of fame. Depending on your thoughts on Phil and NE will depend on which one made which call.
Monty's failing in 2006 was far more revealing than Phil's or even Jim's. Monty has made so much of the importance he placed on winning his first major but ultimately he was afraid of taking the opportunity when it was presented to him.
Monty vs Paddy... Angel vs Kenny.... these show that golf (like many professional sports) is less about talent and more about subconscious fear blocking success.
Having said that, Bill's call was more about a lack of fear blocking success. This time it didn't work but this very evident lack of fear is what has made him one of the all-time-great NFL coaches.

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