The Psychology of a Loss

Stacy Lewis won the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup on Sunday by reeling off five birdies over the closing eight holes. When that run started, she was 3 shots down having gotten within 2 at the turn.

But it could easily be argued that Ai Miyazato lost the tournament by providing glimmers of hope to Lewis when the noose was supposed to be tightening on her. 

Lewis went birdie/bogey/birdie on 11, 12 and 13 to get back to just 2 down.

On the par-3 14th, Miyazato pushed her tee shot into the greenside bunker — astonishingly unusual given everything I had seen her do over nine holes the previous day and the front nine in this round — and then dumped her bunker shot just onto the green and too far away to save the par.

I say that this was the turning point because not only did the tee shot and bunker shot reveal vulnerability, it also allowed Lewis to get within 1 shot. Two shots you wonder how you’re going to catch up over just four holes, but one shot only takes the blink of an eye to disappear.

But these are two tough women, two tough competitors; they both birdied the par-5 15th. Still 1 shot separating the two.

But then the disastrous double bogey for Miyazato at the short, par-4 16th with the elevated green and steep falloff on the left. They both laid up off the tee just short of the defending cross bunkers and about 110 yards away.

Miyazato normally only hits shots straight as a string, so when her pitching wedge started in that slow, pull-hook trajectory, it was like the cosmos was somehow out of equilibrium. It still looked like it was going to hit the left fringe and stay up if it got a straight kick.

Until we all got up there, we had no idea that it had bounced at least once on the steep bank and rolled down onto the floor of the desert.

What ensued was an interminable delay while Miyazato and her caddie determined where to take an unplayable lie; straight back deeper into the desert on an open burm or two club lengths either side of the ball.

Meanwhile, Lewis patiently waited on the green with her caddie, this the hole where he had cost her two strokes for testing the surface of the fairway bunker the day before. In hindsight, it was almost poetic justice that she would bounce back with a birdie on the hole on Sunday.

And for Miyazato, her double bogey was fatal to her lead, her round and her tournament. That 3-shot swing put her 2 back with just two holes to go. Failing to birdie the short, par-3 17th…while Lewis did, was the “no way, Jose” moment. Even though it was over on 16, with a 3-shot lead after 17, Lewis could have played five irons up the 18th hole.

In the media center later, she reconstructed what had happened:

On the 16th hole, what happened on the approach shot, and then we were wondering how come you decided to take a drop in the desert as opposed to going back to where your ball was originally in the fairway and hit your fourth shot from there?

Well, let’s see.  My shot was like totally in between clubs.  I hit the pitching wedge, but my instinct said that it was an easy 9, so it was a little bit indecisive and that’s why I pulled my shot.  I went there and I take a look around, but it’s just the same as like not easy from anywhere, you know?  I decided I would take a drop almost like in a bunker position and I thought we had that little backstop behind the pin so I thought I could make it stop a little bit more.  It was kind of a little flat when I dropped, so it was hard but it just happened like that.  It’s a little unlucky I thought.  I’m just get over it.

Later, Stacy Lewis defended Miyazato’s decision saying that most people would not have given up the distance to go back to a place from which you had just hit a bad shot. There are clear instances where you’d be forced to, say if your ball was in a deep thicket of trees and you had no place to drop.

So which did you hit on 16, the pitching wedge or the 9?

Pitching wedge.

And so you weren’t committed to the shot?

Yes, but that wasn’t hundred percent, it was like almost like 60, 70 percent.  But it sometimes happens like that in a tournament.  You can’t hit hundred percent like every single shot, so I had a good conversation between my caddie and it wasn’t like really solid commitment, but I was still happy to hit the pitching wedge.

So how about the tips for people in terms of how you handle those in‑between clubs shots and stay committed to them?

Well, if you’re in the situation like that in between shot, then take one club ahead I would say because I hit the one club less today.  Three quarter shot is much easier than hit the full shot, I think, so that’s my advice.

My inartful question was more interested in the commitment part of the question rather than the inane “tips” part of the question, so that was my bogey for the day. Thankfully her response with a tip for that situation, obliquely addressed the commitment: it’s easier to stay committed to a shot that’s easier to hit.

History will record that Miyazato lost the tournament at 16 with her double and the three-shot swing, but I argue that 14 may have been just as critical because it demonstrated that it was feasible to Lewis.

And once there’s blood in the water, it takes steely concentration and commitment to quell the low-grade tingling running up and down your back. The feeling is no different than if someone was chasing you down the street, gaining with each step and with safety too far away.

So it is little wonder that Miyazato tried to press with a wedge rather than lazying a 9-iron up there; the “press” an energy-balanced response to that level of tingling. The only fly in the ointment was that commitment to the shot consequently dropped out.

You learn these things with experience and Miyazato will never forget this lesson. And perhaps next year she’ll be able to leave the winner, her trademark gentle smile still intact as it was Sunday night, but without the glistening in her eyes.

The ones you should have won are the ones that hurt the worst.

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