Watching a field goal kicker line up for a game winner (especially if a miss will result a loss), is tense for all concerned. Skill position guys and behemoths alike are seen holding hands or locking arms on the sideline, praying for a make (or a miss). I can’t speak for all field goal kickers but having been one (for a brief period, a long time ago) I can tell you the pressure on making or missing is from a team standpoint, i.e. the kicker wants to come through for his team (OK, a little for himself but only to keep his job – just ask Josh Scobee). Conversely, should he miss, he feels awful because he let his guys down. I’m not sure about today’s NFL PK but, in the past, he was a guy who grew up as a position player and fully realizes how much work, sweat and pain went into actually playing. He just got to a level in which he wasn’t good enough to compete with the other guys – yet possessed a skill that was still quite valuable for the squad.
Players on the free throw line with tenths of a second on the clock and the outcome of the game riding on the success or failure of the shot, a pitcher vs. batter confrontation with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a one-run game, kicks taken in a penalty shoot out in soccer contests – losing hurts more than winning feels good. The reason is mostly due to how the individual’s performance affects his or her team more so than how the player feels about the result (although today’s endorsement deals might be cutting into that theory a bit).
If any fan, mainly those who never played (but can rattle off stats and analytics like it’s nobody’s business), wonders which is more pressure-packed, a team or individual sport, watching the Presidents Cup (golf matches between a team representing the United States and an International team representing the rest of the world minus Europe) told you all you needed to know. For those fans who didn’t want to stay up that late, or to whom golf takes a backseat to football (meaning golf is put on the back burner until after the Super Bowl), the final day produced some nervous moments.
Sangmoon Bae was the only Korean on the International team, playing in front of his home crowd – for the final time before serving two years of mandatory military service – and had the entire outcome fall on his shoulders. Playing in the final spot, his match came down to his needing to win – or else his International team would lose. Tying, or halving, his match would still give the Americans the victory. His opponent, Bill Haas – son of the U.S. team coach (talk about some additional pressure) had hit his approach on the 18th hole in the green side bunker. Bae’s approach landed short of the green, meaning a chip within “gimmee” range would force a not-so-easy up & down for the American. Hole out and Haas would be forced to do he same.
Bae stood over his shot – and, after he hit it, the obvious conclusion was . . . the term no athlete wants next to his name – he choked. He stubbed his chip, didn’t reach the green and watched as his ball rolled back down the incline. His immediate reaction drew sympathy from . . . well, anyone with a heart. He broke down, crouched and put his face in his hands – something only seen on a golf course in victory. His caddie walked over and gave him a pat on the back, for no other reason than to let Bae know that he wasn’t alone – even though the golfer was well aware that everyone at the course, as well as the millions who were watching on television, had their eyes glued to him.
Why is it that superstar players, who look so cool during tour events, have a much tougher time when their performance counts toward a team victory as opposed to a personal one? Miss an easy one on tour means the golfer doesn’t win, takes home a smaller check or doesn’t make the cut. For a guy like Jordan Speith who talks in “we,” “us” and “our” and as opposed to “I,” “my” and “mine” (meaning he understands that there are people who have assisted in his currently being #1 in the world), it’s apparent he has figured out he has a team behind him, composed of, but not limited to, his caddie, parents, the rest of his family, his girlfriend, management team, trainer, sponsors, physio/chiropractor, social media/activation team, various coaches. Yet, Team Speith’s success still depend 95% on how he performs on the course. Naturally, he doesn’t want to let that support group down but, with Presidents Cup play, there was the added factor of his team – the 11 other guys playing for the red, white and blue. In other words, his team winning or losing wasn’t 95% on him.
Some guys thrive on team golf, others not so much. Last Sunday Chris Kirk hit an absolutely awful chip on the 18th, sending his ball well past the hole. His opponent, Anirban Lahiri, was inside five feet. The situation looked bleak for the U.S. – until Kirk made the putt every golf fan will remember him for (it will take quite a feat for any putt he makes in the future to top this one for pure drama). Kirk drained the downhill 15 footer and Lahiri missed his 3’8″ putt, much to the local fans’ dismay. Lahiri wasn’t the only golfer missing short putts. Bubba Watson missed not one, but two five footers, costing his squad a point. And, maybe the hottest golfer over the last month, Jason Day, didn’t win a match during the whole tourney.
As most players will readily admit regarding the difference in the pressure of playing a tour event (including a major) or playing either Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup (and ditto for tennis players in Davis Cup play):
“It’s just not the same.”