Tiger, Phil, Me and You

A foursome match has the power to bring any player to their knees

I am not here to compare myself—personally or professionally—with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But there is a moment in their careers to which I deeply relate: the shuddering anxiety of standing on the first tee of a foursomes match. Tiger and Phil famously were paired together in the opening days of the 2004 Ryder Cup, including the Friday foursomes (“alternate shot,” to the layperson). At that point considered to be the two best players on the planet, they famously lost to the bangers-and-mash duo of Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. Not that Tiger or Phil need any more excuses, but if there’s one format that will magnify poor chemistry, it’s foursomes.

If there’s golf and tournament golf, as the saying goes, then foursomes belong somewhere else entirely. My brother-in-law, a golf sicko of the highest order, has been organizing a golf trip for more than a decade now, revolving around a minimal-stakes Ryder Cup–like team competition. My first year, looking over at my partner before our foursomes match, I felt dread like never before on a golf course. 

It’s one thing to put myself in terrible positions again and again throughout a round—to punch out sideways, block a tee ball off the planet or miss eminently makeable putts time and time again. Hell, that’s my game! However, thinking about the places my partner would be forced to play from—behind that tree, up against that fence, putting from the other side of the universe—filled me with damn near unbearable apprehension. As I stood over each shot, all I wanted to do was turn and apologize in advance to him for what was to come. 

Golf, we all know, is a game of control. To achieve it, we try to construct fiefdoms around anything and everything we can—our body, our mind, our club, our emotions and anything else that possibly threatens to come between ourselves and our ball. 

To become a world-class golfer, then, it makes sense that one must become a world-class control freak. Think of Ben Hogan’s relentless work ethic, Tiger’s unfathomable range sessions, Lydia Ko’s wizardry with her wedges, and on and on. The men and women who rise to the top of the game are wholly conditioned to have everything (and everybody) within their orbit bend to their wish and command, especially their little white ball. It is a fascinating experiment in the human condition to round up a group of these would-be autocrats and throw them onto Solheim/Presidents/Ryder Cup squads and see how they meld into a cohesive group over the course of a few days. (If you’re an American golf fan, you know that “fascinating” generally means “horrifying.”)

Foursomes are the coup de grâce of this madness. The best of the best are forced to relinquish total control, step aside and watch helplessly as half their shots are played by somebody else. Fundamentally, the format goes against every fiber of a professional golfer’s being, everything they’ve known and worked for since childhood.

And, despite my total fear of being in the situation, it is a viewer’s delight. How do they cope with that lack of control? Do they experience the same guilt and angst that mere mortals like myself feel? What happens when they have to rely on somebody else? I hope you remember how deliciously out of the norm they are as you watch team competitions. If you’re at all like me, you’ll cherish grand fiascos like that Tiger/Phil pairing and be thankful you’re not the one standing over every other shot.