For over two decades now, Phil Mickelson has been one of the best golfers on the PGA tour. If not for Tiger Woods, he would be talked about as the player of his generation and one of the best players all time. This past Thursday though Phil Mickelson was on the verge of doing something few have ever done: Shoot a 59.
It’s one of those hallowed records in sports that commands the attention of athletes. To accomplish the feat brings a sense of accomplishment and transcendence that few other things in golf can bring. Mickelson headed into his 17th and 18th holes only needing one more birdie to accomplish the feat. As you can see from the video below, he barely missed putts on 17 and 18 that would have given him the magic number. He parred both holes though finishing with a very respectful 60.
I enjoyed watching him be interviewed after the fact (bolding mine):
“Well, 60 is awesome,” Mickelson said. “Last time I shot 60 here in `05, I birdied like the last three or four holes just to do that, and I was ecstatic, and I’m ecstatic to shoot 60. But there’s a big difference between 60 and 59.”
And that’s what sports does to us: we remember the sting of the disappointment more than the joy of success.
I admire Phil because he was fighting for joy. He was doing the best he could to enjoy the greatness of the round even though he was disappointed. There was a balance he was seeking; he wasn’t just sulking, he was rejoicing too. I truly respect that.
This whole scenario begs the question of what role, if at all, disappointment has in the world of a Christian athlete (or a coach or spectator). Is it ok to be disappointed?
It seems like a strange question, right? Disappointment is part of being human you might be saying. For a moment though, lets look at this situation through the lens of a Christian worldview.
Let’s imagine Phil is a Christian (I don’t whether he is or not but let’s just imagine). As a Christian, Phil:
- wants to glorify God with his golf
- wants the gospel to be at the center of his life
- wants to fight the idolatry of competition and sports
- wants to unearth treasure in himself as well as others
And let’s just assume, for the moment, that Phil could do this perfectly through his round as he shot 60 (I know, it’s crazy but just go with me on this). If Phil could pursue all the objectives above, without the taint of sin, would he have been disappointed with a 60? Would he have longed for a 59? What would his reaction have been when interviewed immediately after the round? What would he have said? Would his reaction been different had he shot a 75 or 100?
Unlike other Sports & Theology posts, I’m going to leave this post without a nice, tidy ending…for now. I want you to wrestle with this. Is there any place for disappointment for an athlete who pursues God’s glory (not his/her own) as their primary motivation? If so, why?