The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER says: “Finish your buckets!”

July 23, 2011
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      How many of you out there play golf?  

     It’s a stupid game, isn’t it?

     Don’t get me wrong.   I’m not saying it’s not a fun game.   Or not a great game.   It’s both of those things.   I’m just saying it is also stupid.   Just the very notion, the cockamamie idea that a normal person could hit a little dimpled ball with a flat-edged stick and get it into a four-and-a-half-inch-wide jar 400 yards away in four or five shots is, well, ridiculous.   And yet we all try to do it.   Just as often as we can gather together enough green to pay the green fees.image0011

     But in the interest of precision (and as any exasperated friend of mine can tell you, I am nothing if not precise), I would venture to say that golf is not so much stupid as it is frustrating.   Like when you think you’re doing everything right and your form is perfect and your technique is solid and then you still shank your shot into the deep, unplayable rough.   Frustrating.   You know.   Just like Life.

     Case in point?   Last week’s Open Championship (Yeah yeah yeah, I’m talking about the British Open….god, you Americans are so provincial.).

     Last week’s Open Championship should have belonged to Phil Mickelson.   He had the Claret Jug by the throat, and his fingertips were making indelible prints in its smooth silver surface.   People love Phil.   He’s apparently one of the nicest guys in the world, and his ‘aw shucks’ personality and soft, everyman physique has endeared him to millions.   Unfortunately, within the galaxy surrounding Earth’s most frustrating game, golf, Phil Mickelson is also its most frustrating satellite.   By far.

     Ever since The Horny Golf Cyborg (Tiger Woods) became the poster child for childish, arrogant, entitlement-drenched behavior and got even ruder and got divorced and got injured and dropped permanently off the golf map, we Phil-lovers (yes, I am one) have been waiting for the lovable marshmallow-bellied dope to step up and take control of this game.   But he won’t.   Or he can’t.   He has never been ranked Number One.   He was supposed to be the heir apparent, but something inside of him won’t let him wear the crown.   He has won only one major championship in the last five years.   And last year, with Woods either gone or just no good, Phil had a dozen separate chances to take the #1 ranking, all he had to do was win just one of those tournaments and he would have accumulated enough ranking points to finally be declared Numero Uno.   But he lost each time.   Usually he didn’t even compete, falling apart on Sundays like a criminal being grilled under hot lights, as the pressure to claim his rightful throne mounted and hit him full in the face.   The last three guys who have made it to Number One are named Luke, Lee, and Martin.  (quick, bet’cha you can’t give me their last names…)


     Back to the Open.   No one expected Phil to contend.   His high ball-flight doesn’t lend itself to English “links” golf, where you have to hit it low and under (or through) the wind, and as such Phil has never done well over there.   But after three days he was only five strokes behind.   And on Sunday, some real magic began to happen.   Phil was booming his drives.   Phil was nailing every long iron and carving every short iron onto the green.   Phil, the best short-game artist in the world, was getting up-and-down from impossible lies.   And Phil, normally a lousy putter, was putting his ass off.   In the first ten holes on Sunday Phil made, by my count, four putts of over 10 feet in length, two of those being longer than 20 feet.   He was charging up the leaderboard like Tiger Woods charging into a private strip club at the Bellagio.   After ten holes he was six under par.   He was suddenly tied for the lead, briefly, then fell to two back, then another birdie put him only one back.   Back and forth, back and forth.   It was thrilling stuff!   The wind was howling, the rain was blowing sideways, other players were happy merely to make pars, but Phil had already produced four birdies and a dazzling, roar-producing eagle.   Six under par.   But it was more than just him being six under par.   Given the weather conditions, absurd length, and innate difficulty of the course, those first ten holes of his on Sunday were, in my opinion, the best anyone has played major-championship golf in the last 40 years.   It had put him on the verge of winning the most important golf tournament in the world, a tournament he had never come close to winning before.   And if he could knock just a couple more shots off of par, he would break the record for lowest round ever recorded in any major championship.   Ever.   This was once-in-a-lifetime stuff, not just for Phil, but for all the Phil-lovers like me who have been waiting in frustration for this self-coronation, waiting forever.   It is why Sunday afternoon of any major golf championship is the very best drama to be had in all of Sport.   It was magic.   And Phil Mickelson was the magician….        

     Then came the 11th hole.

     This is how Phil (and Sports in general, for that matter) breaks your heart.   The 11th started out well enough, with a beautiful, soaring iron to the green of this absurdly long par-3.   He couldn’t drop the 30-footer for birdie (you can’t make a miracle on every hole) but he left it only two feet short.   No worries.   An easy two-footer for par.   Easy even for Phil, a notoriously lousy short-range putter.   And this wasn’t a tricky four-footer, or even an annoyingly just-long-enough-to-be-a-knee-knocker three-footer.   This was two feet.   Twenty-four inches.   A “gimme”.

     He missed it.

     He missed it!   My whole body went cold, as if it was I who had done something wrong.   And it wasn’t just that he missed it; it was the way he missed it.   He rushed it.   The announcers even said so.   He didn’t stop, breathe, mark his ball, reposition it, step back and look over the putt in search of tiny, hidden breaks, the way all golfers (including Phil) always do, and then breathe deep and take a practice stroke and coolly roll it home.   He just walked up, barely even took his stance, and slapped at it.   When it lipped out—badly—one of the announcers breathed, “Oh, my gosh…”, as if he had just witnessed a cold-blooded murder.   Just as frustrating was Phil’s casual, flippant explanation later on.   In the press tent.   He barely addressed the worst putt of his life, glossed right over it, stating simply that “there was nothing to it” and that he “lost focus”.   Oh.   Well why didn’t you say so.   Lost focus?   Are you kidding me?   At the Open Championship?   What blurred your focus, Phil, were you thinking about a cool little donut shop that you’d overheard had just opened up over by the White Cliffs of Dover???

     You can imagine the rest.   Phil tapped in for bogey, made three more bogeys on the back-9, four bogeys on the way in after not coming close to bogey earlier in the day, conversely he didn’t come close to making a birdie on the back, and he lost….but still he only lost by three shots.   I’m convinced, I am absolutely convinced, that if Phil makes that two-footer on 11 and thereby keeps the pressure on, eventual winner Darren Clarke collapses and Phil wins the Open by daylight.   I’m sure of it.  (Well, as sure as you can ever be with Phil….)

     Phil Mickelson is sort of a metaphor for Life itself.   Phil is frustration.   Life is frustration.   Different types of frustration, perhaps several different frustrations at once, but like Phil, Life itself is an enterprise nonetheless dominated, primarily (or so it often seems) by frustration.   You probably have a whole bunch of different, maddening frustrations in your own life that Phil Mickelson reminds you of.   Like maybe the frustration of when you desperately wanted to make a marriage work but you didn’t get any help and so you couldn’t.   Like, perhaps, when you once found a girlfriend who had virtually all the great qualities you ever wanted in a woman except the one or two you can’t do without.   Like when you fairly ached to have your kid be granted just one or two extra at-bats a week on his high school baseball team, just one or two, just enough to make him want to sign up the next year, when you knew he’d be that much older and that much stronger and that much better and would finally learn to love it that much more.   Maybe you’ve never been able to quite get the job you always wanted; always so frustratingly close, but just never quite in the right position at quite the right time.   Or maybe you’re a serious writer who can’t get the world to take you seriously, spending two or three decades sending your chosen life’s work out to the people in charge of your fate, who routinely send it back like so much garbage.   I know a little bit about stuff like that.

     I know about the frustration of golf too.   It’s a difficult, stupid game.   I went to the driving range the other day with my son, figuring I’d buy a bucket of balls and bang away at some of Life’s petty frustrations.   Minor stuff, nothing big.   (And just a small bucket.   My energy level isn’t what it used to be….and apparently neither is my son’s, who on this occasion just watched.)

     Usually I’m an okay swinger on the range.   I hit it pretty good.   Well, let’s say pretty good for an old duffer with a bad right knee.   But on this occasion I couldn’t hit a thing.   Sprayed my shots all over Creation.   Threatened the lives of sleeping gophers with my way-too-deep divots.   I tried everything.   I made all the technical adjustments I usually do, but nothing worked.   God, it was so frustrating….and just not worth the effort.   So I put my clubs back in my bag and started to walk away.

     But then I stopped.   I looked back to my spot on the range, gazed at the twelve or thirteen balls still sitting there, paid for and as yet un-hit.   And I said to myself, “Is that the message you want to send to your kid, you stupid jerk???”   No.   No, it most certainly is not.

     So I went back, reached into my bag, pulled out my driver and my pitching wedge, took my time, and hit every one of those twelve or thirteen balls as well as I could.   I wish I could tell you I nailed ‘em.   I wish I could tell you that my recharged resolve resulted in a dozen crisp, beautiful strikes and a dozen gorgeous shots flung far down the imaginary fairway.   But no.   I still sucked.   I did hit a couple okay drives and maybe one decent wedge, but on balance I was awful.   But at least I finished my bucket.   And that’s my advice (and I suppose my parable) for both my boy and your boys and girls out there who are just starting out: Life is pretty frustrating, but just make sure you do the right thing so you can look yourself in the mirror every single day….finish your buckets.   Take everything you do seriously.   Finish your buckets.   That’s what the pros do.   That’s what adults do.

     So then what is Phil Mickelson’s excuse?   Oh, that’s right….he lost his focus.   Word of advice, Phil old boy….next time the whole golf world is about to be dropped in your lap and you have only a two-foot putt standing in the way of your achieving that dream; take a minute, huh?  

     And concentrate, dammit!        

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image0032

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and a frustrated golfer just like everyone else.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it on,, or…it’s easy!  (You do wanna read it, don’t you???)




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