Is Phil Mickelson Ruining Business?

I was watching the U.S. Open golf tournament the other day. I enjoy doing that because it gives me the chance to watch people who really know how to do their job which in this case is to play golf. Believe it or not I think I actually learn a little when I watch them as well. Not much, just a little. I feel the only thing that truly separates me from them is talent. They have it and I don’t. That and age, and flexibility, and focus, and drive and probably a few other traits that I am not currently aware of.

What I noticed about this broadcast was that they seemed to focus on the players’ recovery shots. The course was set up so that if you weren’t in the fairway you were in trouble. What I saw was a lot of miraculous recovery shots that were attempted from this trouble, and only a select few that were successfully executed. However, the guy who eventually won didn’t seem to attempt the miraculous on every shot. Truthfully he was probably not in trouble as often as the others, but when he was, sometimes instead of attempting the miraculous he just chipped out. He then tried to put the ball on the green and make a putt to save par. He did that a lot. The other guys didn’t. He won by like eight strokes, which in golf terms is the same as lapping the field, or a knockout.

Let’s get this straight right up front. Phil Mickelson is an amazing golfer. He has won forty two events on the PGA tour. He has won five major championships. He has spent over seven hundred weeks in the top ten of the world’s golf rankings. I cannot hit my driver as far as he hits his six iron, maybe even his seven iron if he decides to hit it hard. He is a crowd favorite everywhere he goes because of his demeanor on the course and his willingness to interact with the fans. So why do I think that he is ruining business? I think of him as the father of the miraculous recovery golf shot. He makes a lot of them and they are all highlight reel material. When we see what we think of as an “everyman” like Phil Mickelson pull off the miraculous recovery, we think we can all do it, and not just in golf.

David Feherty on the other hand, is a former professional golfer. While he did win five times on the European golf tour, he has never won on the PGA tour and may not have spent a single week in the top ten of the world’s golf rankings. He retired in nineteen ninety four to become a golf announcer. It is widely accepted that he is far better as a professional golf announcer than he ever was as a professional golfer. Why do I bring up David Feherty in responding to my question as to why I think Phil Mickelson may be ruining business? It is simple. David Feherty provided the following quote regarding Phil Mickelson:

“Watching Phil Mickelson play golf is like watching a drunk chasing a balloon near the edge of a cliff.”

We are now getting close to the point. 

Phil Mickelson will hit some of the most incredible shots in golf that will end up getting him into some of the deepest trouble possible on a golf course. He has been known to get a little wild, or to make some foolish decisions at the most inopportune times imaginable. What is amazing about him is that he can then hit some of the most amazing recovery shots humanly possible and put himself right back in the game again. Notice that I said he “can” hit amazing recovery shots. That doesn’t mean that he always does. Sometimes it works and he is almost unbeatable. Many times it doesn’t, and then things only get worse. Golf, like business is very unforgiving of compounded mistakes.

While it is true that he has won so many times on tour, what is not so widely publicized is the number of times that he lost when he should have or could have won, due to the erratic nature of how he plays the game of golf. In 2006 Phil Mickelson lost the U.S Open on the seventy second and last hole. He came to it leading by one and needing only a par to win. It was not an especially long hole, but as with all major championships it was not easy.

Instead of being a little conservative, and probably winning or at worst tying, he went for it as he always does. He teed off and knocked his drive into the trees.

Instead of playing it safe and smart (as this year’s U.S. Open winner did on several occasions), and pitching out to the fairway where he could then rely on his well documented and much acclaimed pitching and putting skills to get his par, he went for the fabulous recovery shot. Mere mortals could not have hit the shot he was going to try and hit.

He was going to bend a shot around some trees and knock it on the green from more than two hundred yards away. It didn’t work. He hit another tree and the ball came rolling back toward him.

Now he is laying two, and he needs a four to win or a five to at least tie, and he is no better off than he was before.

He goes for it again because now he has to. This time he gets it around the trees, but misses the green and it ends up in a difficult lie in the greenside bunker. Now he needs to get it out of the bunker and in the hole in two shots just to tie.

He gets it out of the bunker, but misses the putt to tie and just like that he loses the tournament.

While Phil Mickelson is renowned for his miraculous recovery shots, there will always be the question of should he have avoided the trouble in the first place. Could he have played it smart and not hit his sometimes erratic driver, opting for a club that he could have more easily used to hit the fairway? Once in the woods could he have made a better choice that would have taken losing the tournament outright out of the equation, while still giving him the chance to win? Mistakes in golf, like in business can always happen, and when you do find yourself in trouble is it always the best course of action to go for broke on the recovery?

History has shown that most attempts at miraculous recovery shots fail, otherwise it would not be considered so miraculous when they succeeded. If they always succeeded they would just be recovery shots, not miraculous recovery shots.

Too many times it seems that businesses can find themselves in a difficult situation and instead of playing to their own strengths and capabilities, play for the miraculous recovery. Most of the time when they try the go for broke recovery in business, the business does indeed go broke. There are examples of successes using this approach. They usually end up in some business school case study where they are captured and passed down to future generations.

I think they are more like lightning strikes in a rain storm. They are relatively rare, individual events, and as the saying goes lightning doesn’t usually strike twice in the same place.

Actually in golf getting struck by lightning even once is not considered a good thing. That’s normally why we go inside when it starts to rain. Getting struck by lightning of a golf course will usually ruin your round, and probably any future rounds you had ever planned on playing.

In golf a steady performer is known as a “grinder”. A grinder is someone who works at minimizing their mistakes and maximizing their opportunities. A grinder usually doesn’t have less talent; they usually just don’t take as many risks. When a grinder makes a mistake or does find themselves in a difficult position, they weigh all the risks and rewards with an eye toward realistically minimizing the downside risk. They understand that they may not be able to win the tournament with a good decision, but that they can certainly lose it with a bad one. Making par after a mistake is not a bad score.

Tiger Woods is a possible example of the ultimate grinder. He has been the best golfer in the world for almost as long as Phil Mickelson has been in the top ten. He rarely makes mistakes to the point that it is extraordinarily uncommon that he ever beats himself. The majority of the other top ten golfers in the world are probably best described to one exten
t or another as grinders also. This means that the riskier, more swashbuckling approach to golf that Phil Mickelson so successfully uses is much more the exception than the rule for the truly successful.

Miraculous recoveries are attention grabbing by their very nature. Few of the attempts are really ever successful despite the numbers that are tried. Those that are successful however are very widely reported and seem to take on an image and a life all their own. Miraculous recovery attempts seem to have become the standard against which we want to measure all performances, be it in golf or in business.

A business that finds itself challenged might better learn from this year’s U.S Open winner. He calculated when to go for the miraculous, and when to play it smart and just chip out of trouble and play on. Phil Mickelson has finished second six times in the U.S. Open indicating he definitely has the talent and capability, but has never won. This year he was sixteen shots back. Businesses are also always competing and need to understand that while the miraculous is usually widely reported, that by its very nature cannot be expected to regularly occur.

Setting realistic goals for each shot a business is going to take is a key to a business’s ongoing success. It’s better to leave the miraculous recovery shots to the golfers.

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