There is no doubt that Phil Michelson is a great golfer. He has won four majors to testify to his greatness. But what is also obvious to all golf fans is that he might have achieved so much more if only he had not suddenly taken dives at the most inopportune moments, usually in the last round of a major.
As a sports psychologist, this crash-and-burn syndrome interests me.
The most recent Masters is an example. Mickelson began the fourth round one stroke behind the leader, Peter Hanson. But on the par-3 fourth hole, Mickelson aimed his tee shot toward the bunker left of the green, reasoning that anything left would be playable. However, his shot careened off the grandstand and went into the rough. He could have taken an unplayable and gone back to the tee, but he chose instead to try to hack his way out. He hacked three times and finally got into the bunker. When it was all over he had a triple bogey. For all practical purposes, he had taken himself out of the tournament.
Six years ago he had a similar crash and burn, this one on the 18th hole of the final round of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He was ahead by two strokes going into the last hole. All he had to do was make a par and the tournament was probably his. He could have played it safe and used an iron, but instead he pulled out a driver on the 18th tee and hit it far left. He ended up with a double bogey and lost to Geoff Ogilvy. Afterward, he noted dejectedly, “I’m such an idiot.”
At the 2009 U.S. Open, Mickelson shared the lead in the final round after a brilliant eagle at the 13th hole. Then he fell back after missing fairly simple putts and recording bogeys on the 15th and 17th holes. He lost that championship to Lucas Grover and was second for a record 5th time in U.S. Open history.
Before he won his first major, Mickelson had played 41 majors without a win. People called him “the best golf player never to win a major.” After he had won his first and then his second and third majors in rapid succession, people thought things had changed. But instead he built a reputation for “being Phil”–that is, for letting tournaments slip away inexplicably.
In looking at Mickelson’s crash-and-burn problem from a sports psychological standpoint, I have concluded that he has a problem fulfilling expectations–his own and that of others. He seems to play his best when nothing is expected of him and goes into his crash-and-burn syndrome when he is a favorite and when much is expected of him.
This is nothing new. Many athletes go through this syndrome. But since Mickelson is such a high-profile athlete, the syndrome becomes magnified.
Some people point to the personal issues that have intruded on his golf game and his life: his wife and mother both went through breast cancer, and he later came up with psoriatic arthritis, a disease that can cause one’s body to stiffen up with pain. However, these physical maladies, though great, cannot be used as an excuse for his letdowns in big tournaments. These were happening before the illnesses.
Mickelson began exciting the golf world from his college days on. While at Arizona State University, he won three NCAA championships and three Haskins Awards (Outstand Collegiate Golfer of the Year). In 1990, he won the U.S. Amateur Championship, and then went on to win his first PGA Tour event, the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, Ariz., at 20 years of age, while still in college. And so, starting off with such a bang, he naturally built up a lot of expectations both in himself and in the golf world.
Those expectations would meet with one disappointment after another. How one responds to expectations, and to competition in general, is a litmus test for how truly confident a person is. Competition can bring out the best or the worst in a person. With regard to Mickelson, when expectations are high, he seems to try too hard and to take risks he shouldn’t take, such as going for a driver at winged foot when he could have played it safe and hit an iron. Expectations seem to bring out his insecurities, which in turn cause him to compensate by trying something risky. You might call it performance anxiety.
But when nothing is expected, when the golf world, his fans, his family, and maybe even he himself have given up and expect nothing, then he is brilliant. Then he remains level headed. Then he does not seem to suffer from performance anxiety.
Phil is the only child of Phil and Mary Mickelson. They both made sacrifices for Phil, who showed an interest in golf from the age of 3. His father built a green and bunkers in the back yard so Phil could practice his short game, and flew him to various junior tournaments (he was a pilot). His mother, meanwhile, took a second job to help pay for these activities. Sometimes when you are the only child and your parents are sacrificing so much for you and perhaps expecting so much, the pressure you put on yourself to succeed for them begins to build.
Phil is now 42 years old–an age when many golfers are over the hill. Perhaps, that being the case, less will be expected of him. The 2012 U.S. Open will be held at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Let’s hope he doesn’t leave his heart there.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D., is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology, and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.