Written under the nom de plume, M.L. Gneier
Please understand that I have always liked Suzann Pettersen. She's been a special favorite if mine ever since she dropped the F-Bomb while being interviewed during the Solheim Cup a few years back. The slip showed humanity and passion all at once, and I like that in a professional golfer.
So, I found myself quietly rooting for Pettersen as she seemed destined for major championship glory at this weekend's Kraft Nabisco Championship (or, The Dinah, to those who really know LPGA golf and care about its founders). The problem was that Morgan Pressel would just not go away and Petterson's driver just would not stay in the fairway.
I pray for meltdowns in golf the way a NASCAR fan prays (consciously or unconsciously) for the tortured sheet metal of multi-car pileups. While golf is in some ways the very worst spectator sport, in other ways it is far and away the best. With the right players and the right course the drama and human angst can approach the level of Greek tragedy. A mere TV viewer can be witness to the kind of emotional and physical collapse that we all hope we'll never have to endure ourselves.
Pettersen's collapse started with her driver, spread to her putter and finally even to her short irons and wedges. She's a stoic, simmering player by nature. She is from Norway, after all, so at first not a lot of her trials could be seen on her face. Panic never appeared to set in, but a lot of despair was evident as the situation grew more dire. When her drive went left on 18, which eliminated going for the par 5 in 2, she looked a bit like a person who has just been in a fender bender, shocked but not injured.
But, when her wedge 3rd left her a 25 footer for birdie to tie, Pettersen looked shaken. After leaving the downhiller short, her self-immolation was complete.
The proceedings were depressing enough that my friend would not watch the replays of Pettersen's downfall. That reaction got me wondering why I like to watch meltdowns so much? The answer came to me after a while: I like to watch really good players get knocked down to see if they can get up again. Most do while some appear to recover but never make it all the way back. Phil Mickelson's US meltdown was brief, just one hole, but his full recovery is far from assured. Mark Calcavecchia maintains that his game never really recovered after his epoch defeat at the Kiawah Island War by the Shore, also known as the 1991 Ryder Cup (Matches the United States won, even after Calcavecchia’s loss). Now, bear in mind that since 1991 Calcavecchia has won more than 10 PGA tour events yet the wound has never healed, at least to him. It makes you wonder what his career would look like had he won his match? Did the crushing loss really hurt his game or is it possible that in some strange way the defeat added some wins to a fine résumé? No one will ever know for sure.
Perhaps this is one of the things that keeps Tiger Woods from being a player who long time lovers of the game can warm up to. He's never really had to exorcise any demons. Ben Hogan ducked hook his way out of the game before he learned to tame it into his legendary controlled fade. Bobby Jones suffered the self-induced ignominy of walking off the course, during the British Open off all things, when his un-contained temper caused his game to temporarily vanish. That's why the cheers for Phil Mickelson will always be warmer than those for Woods. We can sense Mickelson's weaknesses as readily as we can see his brilliance.
One of the wonderful things about golf, for both hacks and pros, is the sense of newness that comes from each first tee. If we could all free ourselves from our memories of past failings and see each new round, and each new shot as truly new we'd all be better players.
Suzann Pettersen will have a hard time forgetting the way she played on the back nine last Sunday. She will think about what went wrong and she will wonder how she'll play the next time both glory and humiliation are knocking on the door. But, the point is that she will play again. A 25 year old player with her game will find a way to look ahead and imagine more good shots than bad ones. In golf, the trick is to play without fear of failure or success.