The all-time greats in sports typically get on that short list because they’re winners. They come through in the clutch more often than not, and they’re not afraid to throw everything they have at a challenge to conquer it.
That’s not the right way of thinking, though. The all-timers are what they are not because they’re driven by a desire to win. They’re in our sporting pantheon because they’re driven by a desire not to lose at all cost. MJ hated to lose…at anything (still does). Brady can’t stand the idea of ceding his mantle as champion to any other signal-caller. Tiger wasn’t about to let some other, less-talented chump take what was rightfully his.
After Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open on Sunday at Erin Hills, he was asked why, at just 27 years old, he’d felt like an underachiever. His answer explained precisely why he won and will continue to win at a sport he admits is second to him compared to baseball.
“I just felt like I should be winning more,” he said. “I don’t know why. It’s one of those things, not a big fan of losing, I don’t think anyone out here is. And I just couldn’t stand the fact that I’d only won once.”
Koepka had grown tired of losing in a sport where, like baseball, failure is the overwhelming norm. He couldn’t take another second of losing, even if it was his B sport, so he got closer to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, got in the gym, put on some 15 lbs. of muscle and got better. That was all to shield against losing. Now he’s the winner of what is billed as golf’s toughest test (and we can debate if Erin Hills actually was, but that’s for another time).
Contrast Koepka’s answer about losing to that of Rickie Fowler, who, too, was in position to pick up his first major title on Sunday.
“I feel like golf-wise I’m playing at the highest level,” Fowler said. “If you look at the negatives too much, I mean, you’re going to be stuck doing that the whole time. You have to measure success in different ways, not just by winning, just because that doesn’t happen a whole lot. I think Tiger had the best winning percentage of all time at 30 percent, and you’re lucky to even sniff close to 10. You kind of have to say, hey, it’s a major. We played well this week. I felt like I did a lot of good things, especially in the first round, executing my game plan. Even though the scores were somewhat lower than a normal U.S. Open, but to finish in double digits, under par at a major championship, especially the Open, it was a good week.”
The comparison is stark. Koepka, in no uncertain terms, made it clear that losing was not an option. Fowler basically quoted “The Life of Brian” to some extent justify losing.
There is no doubt Rickie Fowler wants to win. He has four PGA Tour titles, and he’s got six top-five finishes in majors, including a T-5 on Sunday and four in 2014, becoming the only guy not named Nicklaus or Woods do that. However, the question isn’t if Rickie Fowler wants to win. The question is if he’s willing to do everything he can not to lose. The will to not lose means not only acknowledging failure but embracing it and the lessons that come from it, then doing something about it quickly. Coming up short is instructive, and, for the best, should border on infuriating.
Fowler has demonstrated this in spurts. At the 2010 Ryder Cup, Fowler refused to give in to Edoardo Molinari in a tight final-day match, splitting a point that was crucial despite the team loss. At the 2015 Players Championship, Fowler played the final six holes in 6 under par and birdied the infamous par-3 17th three times in a single day to lock up his biggest win just days after an anonymous peer survey deemed him the Tour’s most overrated player. But those are moments. A vendetta against losing is permanent, and there can be personal consequences for keeping up that fight 24-7.
And here’s where it gets difficult. How does someone fix that? How do you become radicalized against losing? Fowler is a successful guy by pretty much every measure. He’s a nice guy with great friends and a former internet sensation for his girlfriend. He’s got more money than he’ll ever need with two more decades of competitive relevance to rack up further bucks. He’s got trophies, and he’s been on a winning Ryder Cup team (a rare bona fide for an American these days). Fowler has won at life. If that’s OK by him, then he can keep on keeping on. He’ll get his major; it’ll just take longer.
Being great has nothing to do with the fruits of success, or, despite what Philadelphia 76ers fans keep on telling themselves, trusting the process with baby steps backward and forward. It has to do with irrationally despising that split-second moment when you know you’ve lost. Brooks Koepka hates that stomach-churning feeling, and so he got better. And then he got the US Open trophy.