- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

To say JR Hildebrand and Rory McIlroy are two of the biggest losers is totally missing the point.

Sure, they had unfathomable meltdowns on two of the world’s biggest sporting stages _ McIlroy at Augusta National, Hildebrand at the Indianapolis 500.

But they’ve come off looking like winners, teaching us all a valuable lesson in how to cope with the realities of a sporting life. Heck, life in general. Someone has to win. Everyone else gets to lose _ sometimes in the most excruciating way imaginable.

That doesn’t mean you have to look at yourself as a loser.

Funny how it took a couple of kids to show us that.

Winding down after wrecking on the very last turn at Indy, Hildebrand went to dinner with his consoling family. They ended up at a sports bar where, naturally, the TVs were tuned to a replay of the race.

With just a few laps to go, Hildebrand’s No. 4 car surged into the lead.

No one cheered. They knew it wouldn’t last. But Hildebrand didn’t turn away.

“We were all just kind of sitting there,” he said Thursday, even managing a bit of a chuckle, “and everybody got a little quiet.”

The 23-year-old Californian may spend a lifetime dealing with questions about how he let a win in his very first Indy 500 slip away within sight of the checkered flag. But no one can question the poise and backbone he’s shown in the face of such a bitter disappointment.

Over the last five days, Hildebrand has answered every question, looked at every replay and managed to put a thoughtful, rationale spin on his crash _ which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he’s smart enough to have been accepted by MIT.

“I’ve always been a math and science guy,” said Hildebrand, who turned down a chance to attend one of the nation’s most prestigious universities because he wanted to be a racer. “I take a pretty logical look at how things go down.”

Yes, he made a big mistake, one he wouldn’t make again. But he’s pretty sure he understands why he did what he did in that split-second before he slammed into the wall.

“I don’t feel like this is going to define me,” Hildebrand said, chatting by phone before heading off to a Friday testing session in Milwaukee, “unless I let it.”

Back in April, McIlroy took a four-stroke lead to the final round of the Masters. The then-21-year-old was still ahead as he made the turn, just nine holes away from donning the most hideous-yet-stylish garment in golf: a green jacket.

Suddenly, he couldn’t hit anything right, his unflappable game falling apart after he yanked his tee shot at No. 10 between a couple of Augusta’s famous cabins, so far off the beaten path that CBS didn’t even have a camera that could pick him up clearly. He went on to shoot 80, burying his head as if he wanted to cry at one point.

Then, he got right back up.

On Thursday, he was tied for the lead after the first round of the Memorial.

“I’m fine,” McIlroy said a few weeks ago, looking back on Augusta. “It was a great chance to win a first major, but it’s golf. It’s only golf at the end of the day. No one died. I’m very happy with my life.”

For Hildebrand, there wasn’t even a chance to recover from his one big mistake.

Last Sunday, when the rookie sped into the last of his 800 left turns at more than 200 mph, a slower car appeared up ahead. Hildebrand didn’t feel like he had enough time to back off _ still doesn’t, in fact, _ so he kept his foot on the accelerator and tried to pass on the outside.

The turns at Indy become littered with tiny pieces of rubber that peel off during the 200-lap race. They’re known as “marbles,” and they make that part of the track as slick as ice. Hildebrand’s car got into those dreaded marbles. Essentially, that was it. He plowed straight into the wall. Dan Wheldon drove on by to take the checkered flag.

Hildebrand’s battered car skidded across the line in second place, but winning is really the only thing that matters at Indy.

Or is it?

When the No. 4 finally rolled to a stop, Hildebrand climbed out with a look that might have been construed at shock. He managed a weak wave toward the stands, indicating he was OK, then bent over in anguish. Like everyone else, he was probably thinking, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

But, like McIlroy, Hildebrand quickly pulled himself together. He took the media scrutiny head-on. He stopped by the garage to apologize to his crew. He went on Twitter to thank rival driver Paul Tracy for offering his sympathies in the aftermath.

Hildebrand won’t get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, at least not this year.

But don’t call him a loser.

“You can beat yourself up about the different scenarios that could’ve happened,” Hildebrand said. “But I’ve tried really hard not to do that. This was absolutely a learning process. At the same time, I recognize I’m at the beginning of my career. I will have other chances to rectify this situation.”

Considering he passed on MIT, Hildebrand should know a thing or two about crunching percentages.

Then again, there are no guarantees at Indy, just as there are none in life. Hildebrand may never get as close to winning as he did on his very first try, no matter how many times he comes back to the Brickyard.

If that happens, we have a feeling he’d be able to deal with it.

These kids have taught us all a thing or two about winning.

Not losing.

___

National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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