Should We Feel Bad For Second-Place Finishers?
Phil Mickelson came in second at the U.S. Open for the sixth time on Sunday. But does that mean we should pity him?
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These are all headlines describing Phil Mickelson's second-place finish at the 2013 U.S. Open, and they uniformly tell of failure, disappointment, and, most frequently, heartbreak as the results of Mickelson's weekend. For the sixth time in his career, Mickelson came within one spot of winning the U.S. Open. "Every time I think of the U.S. Open, I think of heartbreak," Phil says himself. We, viewers and readers of headlines, are presumed to feel sorry for Mickelson, or, if not, at least recognize why someone night.
Let's go over some other relevant information about Phil Mickelson the athlete:
1) Phil Mickelson is the second-most famous golfer of the Tiger Woods era, trailing, of course, Tiger Woods, and he's one of only two players other than Tiger — the other being Ernie Els — to win four majors since 1990. This is not a guy who's never had his big moment.
2) Phil Mickelson has won 41 tournaments in his career, for a total earnings of $70,366,578.
3) From June 2011 to June 2012, Phil Mickelson earned $43 million in endorsements.
Aside from being rich beyond plausibility and having succeeded in his sport to an extent greater than all but one or two other humans during the time that he played it, Mickelson has — no, that pretty much covers it. Mickelson is successful. He hasn't won the U.S. Open, sure; he also hasn't won the British Open, where he came in second in 2011. But Mickelson is still an all-time great.
Unlike other careers, though — say, banking, or police work, or flying planes filled with people all dependent on you not crashing that plane — most sports have rings which, if not grabbed by an athlete, can always be used to shame or belittle him or her. In team sports, that's the championship and/or the MVP. In individual sports, like tennis and golf, it's each major. Athletes are expected to collect all the rings; if they don't, it's a failure or "heartbreak" just like Phil's. The second-best airline pilot or police detective in America probably doesn't feel like a heartbroken failure.
Part of the issue for Phil is that he has made the U.S. Open into his own white whale, and when he loses there, he tends to do so spectacularly, i.e. Sunday, when he missed a short putt on 16 for a crucial birdie, and in 2006 at Winged Foot, when, with a chance to become one of only three players to ever win three consecutive majors, he double bogeyed 18. When the athlete feeds the beast himself, all the better.
But I don't feel bad for Mickelson, and neither should you. Coming in second at the U.S. Open is not a failure; it's a success that falls slightly lower on the sliding scale of golfing achievement than winning the tournament would have. Success comes in gradients, and Phil Mickelson has routinely existed in the topmost gradient, if not at the very apex, of his sport. The chronic need to heap heartbreak and pity onto what is a wildly impressive accomplishment — six times, Mickelson has come in second! — is both a failure and a success of imagination. It's a failure in that it's missing the forest for the trees. It's a success in that it allows the rest of us, who are probably not the second- or thousandth-best at what we do, to relate to a world-class athlete who is often the best at his job.
Phil Mickelson has one of the most intriguing and accomplished careers of any athlete of the last few decades, and the six U.S. Open second-place finishes are a large part of that. It'll be thrilling when and if he wins one. But we needn't cry ourselves to sleep until that day comes.