Well, Dustin Johnson blew it again. In last week’s British Open, he was just one off the pace when an inscrutable club choice and an out-of-bounds ball ended it all. His errant shot evoked last year’s US Open, when his lead disappeared into the maw of a disastrous final round that saw him finish tied for eighth. And at last year’s PGA Championship, who can forget him grounding his club in a patch of sand either he or his caddy (or both!) should have known was a deemed hazard? That mistake cost him a chance at a playoff. What’s his problem with the majors?
And Phil! OMG! In 17 previous tries in the British Open, he’s had just one top-10 finish. This year, he garnered another ‘first loser’ finish, to accompany his record-setting five second-place finishes in 21 attempts at the US Open, another major where victory eludes him. His 2006 US Open finish at Winged Foot—where he blew a three-stroke lead with just two holes to go—is notorious. Maybe Phil should stay out of tournaments with ‘Open’ in the title.
In TV, print and online coverage, commentators invoke negative storylines like these with unseemly glee, and not even media favourites are exempt. Within a minute of Dustin’s shot flying out of bounds, we were treated to replays of the wheels coming off at last year’s US Open and PGA Championships. If Phil’s British Open round had included even one shot as wild as the ones at Winged Foot, I expect we would have seen replays of that tournament’s final moments too.
Negative patterns underlie many of the cautionary stories we tell. An inexplicable, random bad choice here or there—how unsatisfying, somehow, compared to a pattern of bad choices that signals a human frailty. For years, Phil’s story has included supposed wildness in shot making, and there is some truth to it: he is, after all, noted for getting out of trouble only because he gets into it so often. Dustin’s story now includes three majors blown in 13 months, and the speculation on what it reveals about him will continue until he wins a major—and maybe beyond. Neat little explanatory nuggets, stories die hard.
Negative golf stories are not limited to the ones told about the pros: we tell them to ourselves. My short game is lousy, one mutters, as his chip shot flies over the green into the bunker on the far side. I can’t drive to save my life, another complains, as her tee shot piddles along all of 50 yards. The next hole’s successful shots—and the next—are dismissed as lucky aberrations. Only the negative outcomes fit the pattern; after a while, only the negative outcomes are seen.
Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, rails against a ‘pessimistic explanatory style’, linking it to depression. I think of it as negative storytelling on steroids: This thing that has gone wrong is ‘personal’ (my fault entirely), ‘pervasive’ (it affects everything in my life) and ‘permanent’ (it will always be like this).
When taking responsibility for ourselves and our situation is seen as a virtue, a pessimistic explanatory style is an insidiously seductive trap. It can’t be right to blame someone else, can it? It’s silly to make excuses with talk of fate, kismet or the grain of the grass, isn’t it? Thus do we confuse ‘taking responsibility’ with hammering ourselves, based on patterns that we have not so much observed in, as imposed on, our experience: negative stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
As compelling as these stories are, they never tell the whole truth. Dustin’s record this year includes finishes of 38th at the Masters and 23rd at the US Open. Not fitting the ‘blow the lead’ storyline, they are conveniently omitted in summing up his performance in majors. Since 1993, Phil’s record includes 32 top-10 finishes in the majors, and a string of 31 where he was under the cut—a performance consistency that undermines the ‘wild Phil’ storyline, or would if it were ever mentioned.
Which story should Dustin believe? The one touted by golf commentators—the Major Choker—or the one that marvels at four wins in just three years on Tour, and three top-10 finishes in majors in 2010 and 2011 alone? And what about Wild Phil, whose four majors place him second only to Tiger among contemporary competitors? Should Phil focus on the majors he hasn’t won, as commentators love to, or the ones he has?
It seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? If they want to have the confidence to continue winning, if they even just want to enjoy playing, they’ve got to ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’, as Johnny Mercer had it, about 20 years before Martin Seligman. Without changing their outcomes by even a stroke, Dustin and Phil can be winners or chokers, in their own minds.
And what about those of us hacking away on the back nine, whether at the neighbourhood golf course or in our day-to-day? Is it as obvious which story we should believe about ourselves? It should be: the same rules apply. We, too, can live as winners or chokers, depending on whether we choose to celebrate our successes or wallow in our failures. When our ball—literal or metaphorical—sails over the green or lands out of bounds (as it surely will, from time to time), maybe we can think of Dustin and Phil and just say, I missed that shot. And then move on confidently to do better on the next shot, the next chapter in our own story.