By Brad Pistole

How many times have you finished a round of golf and thought, "If I could just take that one shot back, or that one hole back, I would have had an incredible round of golf?" If you're like most golfers, you've had this thought many times. Golfers know it only takes one bad hole to destroy a round.

Sometimes, it's just one bad shot that can ruin what you have worked so hard to earn on the previous 17 holes.

I'm sure you're asking yourself, what does golf have to do with my retirement? The way you choose to approach this frustrating little game has a lot do with the way you approach investing in your retirement accounts.

If you don't believe me, just ask Phil Mickelson. I was playing college golf at the same time as Phil Mickelson. We are the same age. Ole Lefty is probably my favorite golfer. I have several famous golf photos in my office. My favorite is a picture of Phil jumping into the air with his putter in his hand just as after he sank the putt on the 18th green to win the 2004 Masters Championship. It was his first major tournament victory.

Phil is a major champion golfer. He was won 42 PGA tournaments and 5 majors. He has won the coveted green jacket three times, the PGA Championship and the British Open.

However, there is something you might not know about him. Mickelson has come in second place 34 times. That's right, he has lost the opportunity to win 34 times.

You know what they say about finishing second, right? It's like kissing your sister. No one remembers who finishes second. And there's something even more painful than finishing second 34 times. The only one of the four major tournaments Phil has never won is the U.S. Open. Well, in case you don't know, Mickelson has finished 2nd place in that tournament a record six times.

In 2006, Mickelson was playing the best golf of his life when he entered the U.S. Open. He had won 3 major titles in 2004 (Masters), 2005 (PGA), and 2006 (Masters). As he walked up to the 18th tee on the last day of the U.S. Open, he was about to win his fourth. He had a one stroke lead. All he had to do was finish strong. He simply had to preserve what he had already worked so hard to accomplish.

And then... You guessed it: Mickelson made some major mistakes. He decided to take some risks that were completely unnecessary. Mickelson simply needed a par on the 18th hole to win his first U.S. Open and his 4th major tournament. When he chose to use his driver off the 18th tee, he missed the fairway. In fact, his tee shot hit the roof of a hospitality tent and his ball ended up in the middle of the gallery.

Instead of deciding to accept his bad decision and play a safe shot by pitching out into the fairway, he decided to take another risky shot. You know what happened next, don't you? His next shot hit a tree. The shot after that plugged into a green side bunker. He was unable to get up and down and he double bogeyed the hole. Taking those risks cost him the 2006 U.S. Open title and the honor of joining a very select group of people who have won all 4 majors.

After the tournament, Mickelson was quoted as saying, "I'm still in shock. I still can't believe I did that. This one hurts more than any tournament because I had it won." He then went on to say, "I just can't believe I did that. I am such an idiot."

Now you might be thinking, "What in the world do this have to do with my retirement?" Trust me, it has everything to do with your retirement plan.

It truly does not matter how good the market was or has been during the accumulation phase of your retirement accounts. What matters is how strong you finish. If you experience major losses in your retirement accounts just before you retire, or even worse, after you start taking distributions from your accounts, you will end up in a complete mess.

It's even more important for your accounts to remain safe and to continue performing well after you retire and start taking distributions.

If you don't believe me, just ask Mickelson. In the last round of the 2004 Masters championship, he shot 2 over par on the front nine and lost his lead. It looked like he was going to choke. But Mickelson shot a -5 under par 31 on the back nine which included a birdie on the 18th green. Finishing strong helped him win by one stroke. It was his first Major tournament victory and the first of three green jackets.

Now if you still don't believe me that finishing strong with your retirement plan is important, think about this. At the time I wrote this article in late September of 2017, Mickelson had no victories in 2017. As a matter of fact, his last victory was in 2013 at the British Open. Phil has had no victories in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Do you think he would give up a few of his 34 second place finishes to add a few victories in 2014 to 2017? I think we all know the answer to that. Finishing strong is very important.

Have you ever thought about the people who retired from a lifetime of work on September 10, 2001? You know many people did. What about the people who retired in late 2007, just before the beginning of the housing market bubble and the 2008 stock market crash. Both groups of people retired, planning to experience the life they had always dreamed about and they had no idea their retirement accounts would soon be decimated by a stock market collapse. This was at a time when they needed safety and the preservation of their principal the most.

In 2008, Americans lost more than $3 trillion in retirement savings. As you know, hard-working people lost as much as 40% of their retirement accounts from 2001-2002. The same thing happened to them again in 2008.

Keeping your principal protected from unnecessary losses, fees, and taxes is the key element that so many people miss in their retirement plan. That's why it's estimated that as high as 60% of all retirees will fail in their retirement and end up back at work. They focus on the return percentage in their accounts, and they take too many risks. They fail to realize just how much unnecessary fees, losses, and taxes will affect their retirement accounts over a 20- to 30-year period.

Take the time to do the math. If you are paying 1% to 2% in annual advisory fees on your retirement accounts and you do that for 30 years, how much of your retirement savings will be lost to fees? If those accounts are not protected against losses and you go through four or five 10% or great market corrections during that 30-year period, then you will pay fees while experiencing losses.

Hopefully you've seen this example of just how bad losses from your retirement accounts hurt: A 50% loss from your retirement account does not require a 50% gain in the markets to get back to even. A 50% loss in your retirement account requires a 100% gain in the markets to recapture what you have lost. And this does not include what you will also lose in advisory fees and the amount of time it takes to recover your losses.

When you retire and start taking distributions, you enter the most important phase of your retirement plan. This is what I call the triple whammy that many people experience in their accounts. If you start taking distributions while paying advisory fees, while experiencing losses, your accounts will go backwards so quickly your head will spin. And that doesn't even account for the taxes involved.

In Ed Slott's book, "The Retirement Savings Time Bomb ... And How to Defuse It" he writes about investors' "risk IQ." He has a test so that investors can determine what their specific risk IQ is, and he says the test is "designed to flush out the biggest mistakes people make with retirement distribution planning." He goes on to say, "each question highlights a situation that could lead to the demise of your 401(k), IRA, or other retirement savings if you're not careful." Slott, who has been called America's IRA expert, encourages investors to "start thinking seriously about protecting your retirement money now," because there are so many things that could "be the death knell of your life savings and be a pot of gold for Uncle Sam."

The introduction to Ed's book is called "Playing the back 9" and he writes, "The 'front 9' is where you position your lead by building up your assets; and holding on to your lead (protecting your assets from excessive taxation) is the 'back 9' where, ultimately, you win or lose."

If you don't pay attention to these very important details about your retirement planning, you might end up feeling like Mickelson did on the 18th hole of the 2006 U.S. Open. You just might find yourself walking down the 18th fairway of life, with retirement in sight, and you might end up saying, "I'm still in shock. I still can't believe I did that. I am such an idiot."

Calculated risks are a part of life. However, taking unnecessary risks as your retirement approaches is not wise. The end of your working career is not the time to pull out the driver, attempting to crush it down the fairway as far as you can see.

There is wisdom in pulling out an iron, hitting it in the middle of the fairway, and walking away with a par. In comparison to the alternatives, this will feel like a major victory. Your retirement accounts and those you love most will thank you. In the words of Mickelson, "I think it's more than whether or not you win or lose. It's having that opportunity on that final round, final nine, to come down the stretch with a chance to win."

About the author: Brad Pistole is the CEO of Trinity Insurance & Financial Services and a member of Ed Slott's Elite IRA Advisor Group. For more information about this group, or to find a member near you, visit Pistole is also an MDRT Top of the Table Advisor, the host of Safe Money Radio, and the author of the book Safe Money Matters - Finding Safe Harbor in a Storm-Filled World.

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