PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods celebrated a Hall of Fame career last week, living off a simple message — the second sucks.
If you’re more theatrical, there are always Ricky Bobby’s thoughts on the subject of the cult classic “Talladega Nights”: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
While the wisdom of Woods and Bobby spawns countless memes, in golf, not winning is a way of life that needs to be rationalized and sorted out. The alternative would be a miserable existence filled with self-loathing and, ultimately, endless disappointment.
Even when the opportunity arises, there is a flexibility that requires hindsight. It was there on Monday as a rambling and delayed Players Championship came to a close.
Anirban Lahiri had started the final round with a shot off the pitch. After three days of weather delays and brutal conditions, there was no longer the normal anxiety of sleeping on a leash. Lahiri had less than two hours after signing his third-round scorecard before heading into the final frame.
For a player vying for his first PGA Tour title, this was the best-case scenario that happened on a hole.
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“I made a really bad call off the tee. I should have hit 5 wood. I tried to force the 4 iron and paid the price,” said Lahiri, whose tee shot at the 231-yard, par-3 eighth hole sailed wildly left and led to a double-bogey 5.
There was good after. An eagle at 11and hole to rekindle his title hopes, followed by an unlikely birdie at the island’s 17th greenand hole to finish one shot behind eventual winner Cameron Smith.
Lahiri, who embraced meditation a few years ago as a way to clear his mind at times like this, kissed his wife, Ipsa Jamwal, and then his daughter, Tisya, before facing the media.
Are you able to see any positives from the week or is it just a bummer right now?
Lahiri quickly pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, “Hold on, hold on. Now that you asked me that question, I have to show you something,” he said.
He approved a text exchange with his swing coach after the second round of the Honda Classic two weeks ago. He highlighted the things he did well – shots won: off the tee (29and), around the greens (fourth) and putting (15and) – and what he didn’t do well – strokes won: approach to the green (144and).
“My only goal going in was to change that, and I did. It was a very successful week,” said Lahiri, who finished the week at TPC Sawgrass ranked 13th.and in strokes won: approaching the green.
In case his answer seems a tad revisionist, know that the 34-year-old had his flaws as well as his own expectations. Winning on the circuit is tough, but no perspective can completely temper what drives world-class athletes.
“Of course, of course,” he admitted when asked if he was disappointed. “I want to win. I’ve been [on Tour] seven years; haven’t crossed the line yet.
When asked how he would look back on what was a marathon Monday, he shrugged, “relieved”. After a few lean years on the Tour, an opportunity, even a missed opportunity, can be cause for optimism.
Lahiri finished alone in second place, which was worth $2.18 million in the game’s richest event. One shot behind Lahiri was Paul Casey, who also took a measured approach to his near miss. At 44, it was a chance for the veteran to put an exclamation mark on what has otherwise been an impressive and consistent career.
The Englishman was eyeing a particularly interesting footnote by becoming the first Tour winner to start a tournament with a triple bogey. Casey played his next 53 holes at 11 under par and was a shot back heading into the final round.
He took a share of the lead with a birdie at No. 11 and added another at 12and hole to keep pace with Smith. After more than two decades of participating in gaming’s biggest events, this felt like his day. It sounded like his day, until it didn’t.
After hitting what he called his best drive of the day at par-5 16and hole, a tight draw that traveled 308 yards, Casey’s golf ball landed in an old divot that gave him no chance of reaching the green in two shots.
“Sometimes you need a little luck, don’t you?” It wasn’t luck, was it? shrugged Casey, who pared at No. 16 and finished two strokes behind Smith.
In many ways, it felt like Casey was speaking more broadly, not just about his misfortune at 16and hole. Throughout his career, the margin between victory and defeat can often be defined by a bad rebound, a gust of wind or just plain bad luck.
When you think back on that, and I know it’s still very fresh, but how does that hit? Do you feel like you had an opportunity that you missed?
“No, I just played a really, really good round of golf in tough conditions around Sawgrass. Shot 69 with a bogey and a few breaks that didn’t go over well with me,” Casey explained. hats off to Cam, who played phenomenal golf and won this tournament.
It’s the nuance missing from the pithy sound bites of Woods and Ricky Bobby. Of course, second sucks, and while technically incorrect, if you’re not first you might very well feel like you’re last, but in golf, winning or losing is a distinction that comes down in a wide variety of shades.