PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods celebrated a Hall-of-Fame career last week, living by a simple message – second sucks.
If you’re more theatrically minded, there’s always Ricky Bobby’s thoughts on the topic from the cult classic "Talladega Nights": “If you're not first, you're last.”
While Woods' and Bobby’s wisdom make for countless memes, in golf, not winning is a way of life that must be rationalized and sorted. The alternative would be a miserable existence filled with self-loathing and, ultimately, endless disappointment.
Even when opportunity presents itself, there’s a flexibility that demands perspective. It was there Monday as a disjointed and delayed Players Championship wrapped up.
Anirban Lahiri had started the final round a shot clear of the field. After three days of weather delays and brutal conditions, there was none of the normal anxiety of sleeping on a lead. Lahiri had less than two hours after signing his third-round scorecard before setting out for the final frame.
For a player vying for his first PGA Tour title, it was a best-case scenario that unraveled on one hole.
“I made a really bad decision on the tee. I should've hit 5-wood. I tried to force 4-iron and paid the price for it,” 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 stuff after that. An eagle at the 11th hole to rekindle his title hopes, followed by an unlikely birdie at the island-green 17th hole to finish a stroke behind eventual winner Cameron Smith.
Lahiri, who embraced meditation a few years ago as a way of clearing his mind in moments just like this, hugged his wife, Ipsa Jamwal, and then his daughter, Tisya, before facing the media.
Are you able to see any positives out of the week or is it just disappointment right now?
Lahiri quickly dug his cell phone out of his pocket: “Hang on, hang on. Now that you've asked me that question, I've got to show you something,” he said.
He thumbed up a text exchange with his swing coach following the second round of the Honda Classic two weeks ago. It pointed out the things he did well – strokes gained: off the tee (29th), around the greens (fourth) and putting (15th) – and what he didn’t do well – strokes gained: approach to the green (144th).
“My only goal coming 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 in strokes gained: approach to the green.
In case his answer seemed a tad revisionist, know that the 34-year-old owned his short-comings as well as his own expectations. Winning on Tour is hard, but no amount of perspective can completely temper whatever it is that 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 gotten over the line yet.”
When asked how he would look back on what was a marathon Monday he shrugged, “Relieved.” Following a few lean years on Tour, an opportunity, even an opportunity lost, can be a reason to be optimistic.
Lahiri finished alone in second place, which was worth $2.18 million at the game’s richest event. A shot behind Lahiri was Paul Casey, who also took a measured approach to his near-miss. At 44, this was a chance for the veteran to put an exclamation mark on what has otherwise been an impressively consistent career.
The Englishman was eyeing a particularly interesting footnote by becoming the first Tour winner to begin a tournament with a triple bogey. Casey played his next 53 holes in 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 the 12th hole to keep pace with Smith. After more than two decades plugging away at the game’s biggest events, it was looking like his day. It was looking like his day, until it wasn’t.
After hitting what he called his best drive of the day at the par-5 16th hole, a tight draw that flew 308 yards, Casey’s golf ball landed in an old divot that left him no chance to reach the green in two shots.
“You need a little bit of luck sometimes, don't you? That wasn't very good luck, was it?” shrugged Casey, who made par at No. 16 and finished two shots behind Smith.
In many ways it felt like Casey was talking more broadly, not just to his misfortune at the 16th hole. Throughout his career the margin between victory and defeat can often be defined by a bad bounce, a wind gust or simply bad luck.
When you look back at this, and I know it's still very fresh, but how does it hit? Do you feel like you had an opportunity that got away?
“No, I just played a really, really good round of golf in difficult conditions around Sawgrass. Shot 69 with one bogey and some breaks that didn't go my way,” Casey reasoned. “You have to tip your cap to Cam, who played phenomenal golf. He won this tournament.”
It's the nuance that Woods' and Ricky Bobby’s pithy soundbites miss. Sure, second sucks and, although technically incorrect, if you’re not first you could very well feel like you’re last, but in golf, winning or losing is a distinction that comes in widely varying shades.