The Science of Second

RSS

There is an Art of War, courtesy Sun Tzu, and an Art of Winning, courtesy Americas Cup skipper Dennis Conner. But nowhere in the vast libraries of sports psycho-babble has a thoughtful scribe penned a how to tome on the science of coming in second.
 
And make no mistake, it is a science.
 
Truth is, for those who elbow their way into contention at the games highest level only to fall short its a science of silence. Its an ongoing turf war to quiet the questions. Will I ever break through? What could I have done better? Was it nerves or circumstances or fate that cost me a photo op with the over-sized check?
 
On Sunday, Pat Perez answered all those questions with a towering 6-iron on the 90th hole at the Bob Hope Classic that nestled within 6 feet of redemption. That meltdown at Pebble Beach in 2002 is now history. Its a subject that the Tours non-conforming rock star has no interest in ever addressing again, either internally or from the dogged media who seemed to dredge up the episode every time he found himself within a chip shot of the lead.
 
If I got to answer any more Pebble questions after this . . . I mean, it's up to you guys, Perez sighed five minutes into his Hope post-game. I hope you guys will drop it.
 
Whether Perez struggled with the demons of Pebble or not is between Double P and his well-paid sports psychologist. Whether John Merrick, who bogeyed the 17th hole and parred the par-5 finishing hole on Sunday to finish three shots behind Perez, will struggle with his runner-up Hope showing is not much of a mystery.
 
Late Sunday, just hours after concluding his round at PGA West, the third-year Tour player joined a group of friends in Palm Springs for dinner. The group neither ignored the near-miss elephant in the room nor over-analyzed his best Tour finish.
 
There were so many positives for the week, said Jamie Mulligan, Merricks longtime swing coach. We noticed if we set up a compound and get comfortable with our surroundings, when we chill out he does a lot better.
 
Its sports psychology 101. Draw what you can from the positives and leave what remains to those of lesser resolve.
 
In practical terms, Mulligan viewed Sundays happenings as a once-in-a-lifetime learning tool. There is no way to realistically recreate the pitch that comes when playing for history on a Tour Sunday, so when you have the chance you draw from every ounce of the experience.
 
Your sitting heart rate is 70. If you could ever learn to play at 66 or 67 youd play unbelievable, Mulligan said. Most young players operate at about 120. To get in that situation gives him a chance to learn what its like.
 
There is a fine line, of course, between learning from history and being haunted by it. For most sports psychologists its expectations that dictate how players deal with disappointment.
 
I think it has a lot to do with how youre set up to begin with, said Sea Island (Ga.) Resorts Dr. Morris Pickens, whose stable of Tour players includes Zach Johnson. I dont talk to my guys about winning; I talk about getting into contention. Sometimes youre going to play well and not win.
 
Playing well without a trophy to show for your efforts is part and parcel of the pro package. For anyone not named Tiger Woods, any winning clip south of the Mendoza Line is reason to celebrate.
 
Success, at least in psychological terms, is measured in baby steps. What happens, more so than what was won, is more important to your average sports psychologist.
 
Guys learn from their tendencies. Some guys might try to get too protective and start guiding shots and some guys slow down, Pickens said. Its all about your tendencies. Ive had players that have been there and failed and then it becomes you want to be in that position again with an opportunity to pull it off or fail.
 
Do you want to have that chance again to win the game? Or do you not want to be there? You have to deal with it a lot.
 
Of course, failure ' particularly the high-profile variety that comes with booting a Tour title ' has no shelf life. Many point to Phil Mickelsons well-versed stumble at Winged Foot in 2006 as the ultimate case study.
 
Prior to Winged Foot Mickelson had finished outside the top 10 just twice in his previous nine majors, including three victories, at the 2004 and 06 Masters and 05 PGA Championship. In the 10 majors since that Sunday in suburban New York Lefty has the same number of top 10s and missed cuts (two).Those inside Camp Phil bristle at the notion that he is haunted by corporate tents and missed tee shots, but the results are unmistakable.
 
At an extreme level, some players say, I cant get over this, said Dr. Gio Valiante, whose Tour clientle includes the likes of Chad Campbell and Chris DiMarco. Golfers have experiences that they cant get over and there are a lot of reasons for that. The question is what they do with the experience the first day or two after that. If you drive that memory into your mind and relive it chances are it will resurface.
 
In fairness to Mickelson, his 34 Tour titles are testaments to his ability to close under pressure and his 21 runner-up finishes are well short of the also-rans posted by Jack Nicklaus (58) or even Woods (24). Whatever long-term impact Winged Foot will have on his Hall of Fame career can only be weighed after the closing credits have rolled.
 
Lacking a Second place for Dummies guide, the only slide rule capable of measuring the impact of Merricks Hope miss will occur the next time his name inches its way onto a Sunday leaderboard. When it comes to the science of second, theres no way to know what awaits Merrick.
 
Email your thoughts to Rex Hoggard