CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s always next week.
The defense mechanism employed by Chicago Cubs fans for the better part of a century is just as common in golf circles, particularly on a Sunday like the one that transpired at the Wells Fargo Championship.
A final round that featured more lead changes than a NBA playoff game has a tendency to produce a more measured assessment from those not involved in the trophy presentation.
Consider Rickie Fowler, the 54-hole leader and consensus favorite. He has four worldwide titles in the last 12 months, but Fowler stumbled early on Day 4 with bogeys at two of his first four holes, fell even further back when his “mud-ball” addled approach at the seventh sailed wide right for a double bogey, and yet he still finished just two strokes out of a playoff won by James Hahn.
But in the moments after signing for his closing 74 there was no lamenting his play or poor fortune, no endless second-guessing, just a shrug and an onward mentality.
“It's just learning from it and feeling good about being in the position and dealing with what I had today and not letting it get away from me,” said Fowler, who tied for fourth place at 7 under. “I was able to kind of fight through it, deal with some tough breaks, deal with not swinging it well off the tee and figuring out a way to still get it around and hang around.”
Rory McIlroy, a two-time winner at Quail Hollow, shouldn’t have started Sunday with any real title hopes after a pair of 73s left him eight strokes out of the lead, but the world No. 3 went out in 33 more than two hours before the front-runners and cut the lead to two strokes with a 3-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole.
He could have fixated on his closing bogey or the three missed birdie putts from inside 23 feet midway through his back nine, or his missed eagle attempt at the par-4 14th hole after driving the green. But the golf season, particularly this golf season, is far too short and compact to allow the luxury of self-pity.
“I feel like it's been a step in the right direction this week, and hopefully I'll continue to make some forward strides next week at The Players and onwards, hopefully the U.S. Open,” said McIlroy, who tied for fourth with Fowler.
Perhaps the most snake-bitten among the oh-so-close crowd was Phil Mickelson.
In a baker’s dozen trips to Quail Hollow, Lefty has finished second (2010), third (2007 and ’13) and has been outside the top 25 just twice. But he’s never won.
If Mickelson wanted to indulge in the “what if” game he’d likely start and finish at Quail Hollow’s 18th hole, where he made a quadruple bogey-8 to close his round on Saturday. It was a miscue that sent him tumbling to 1 under to start the final round.
In quintessential Mickelson style, however, he scorched the front-nine on Sunday with two birdies and an eagle and rattled off three straight birdies at Nos. 14-16 to get to 7 under, just two behind the eventual champion.
Yet there was no effort, at least externally, to examine what could have been. Instead, only an eye toward TPC Sawgrass and a game he feels is trending in the right direction.
“I hit a lot of good shots over the weekend,” said Mickelson, who also finished at 7 under after a final-round 66. “Unfortunately, one bad hole yesterday kind of cost me. But today's round gives me a little bit of momentum heading into The Players.”
Justin Rose may have been the only player among the contenders who showed signs of ruing a missed opportunity, and justifiably so.
Rose took a share of the lead with a birdie at No. 2 and the outright advantage at 9 under with another at the fifth, but he started to fade with a bogey at the 12th hole after airmailing the green with his approach shot and three-putted from 17 feet at No. 16 to drop a shot behind the leaders.
“Obviously today was an opportunity come and gone, but I know the way I'm playing,” said Rose, who finished with a 1-under 71 and was alone in third place at 8 under. “I'm looking forward to the major championships this year. We would love to have won this week and give me some confidence to finish one off. The rest is just, you know ...”
Get on with it, as the English are fond of saying.
Call it a defense mechanism, call it denial, but loss is a reality in a game where winning percentages are often measured to the right of the decimal point.
At this level trying to dissect a defeat like this can be maddening. How, for example, can one explain Hahn’s playoff victory over Roberto Castro?
The 34-year-old former women’s shoe salesman was fresh off eight consecutive missed cuts and hadn’t broken 70 on Tour since February, and he conceded he’s spent the last two months searching for answers.
Asked to explain his sudden turnaround, Hahn’s answer was priceless.
“I can’t,” smiled Hahn, who finished at 9 under and won on the first extra hole with a par. “The mind is a powerful thing and it was going bad for a while. Just didn't have the confidence, didn't believe in myself. You're playing bad and you're missing cuts and there's nothing funny about that.”
Certainly none of Sunday’s cast found humor in the outcome. The flights will be long to Jacksonville, Fla., and there will likely be moments of retrospection, maybe even regret, but just as it is in every sport you can only have painful association with the past.
“This golf course has played tough over the weekend, so proud of the way I hung in there,” Fowler offered when asked how long this loss will stay with him.
The silver lining for players not named Hahn, there’s always next week.