No matter how kooky we feel golf has become, it still teaches its players character, sportsmanship
As it turns out, the elements of golf that at times make it look silly, outdated, archaic and nonsensical ultimately come through to show how golf develops character, courtesy, sportsmanship and, perhaps best of all, respect for your opponents to a greater degree than any other sport.
As our society grows ever more sophisticated and presumably astute as well, sports such as golf look out of touch because of the complexity of the rules and the formal, structured customs and traditions of the order of play. Most sports have an air of fairness about them, so that each side competes on equal terms, but golf goes further and develops an inner honor system that produces respect for the course, opponent and/or fellow playing partner. Golfers compete to beat par, and in competition, defeat an opponent or an entire field of players. But the overriding factor is the game itself. Whether the battle with par is won or lost, and the match taken or lost, it’s the experience that supersedes everything. You respect all parts of the experience to the extent that when suffering a loss you celebrate the event.
I have been reminded of golf’s great gift to its players recently on two fronts.
First, in researching a golf book I am writing, I have gone back to read a great deal about the modern Big Three of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who, sadly, are year by year becoming less known to younger golfers. We will never know the full extent of how many hours those three spent as a group playing golf, but it is likely no three professional golfers played as much together as those three. The competitiveness they each had is seen in their astounding records, but despite wanting to crush each other, they had a bond that allowed them to be civil, mannerly and able to continue on as comrades off the course. Player, especially, was known for describing a tough competitiveness that gave way to camaraderie when the last putt was holed. In the early 1960s, Palmer and Player teamed up to compete against other twosomes in a TV series, oftentimes on the heels of having played an intense battle in a tournament, or having faced each other in an exhibition match. No matter the outcome, it was over and done and they moved onto the next battle. Both Player and Nicklaus were in the position of having had to trust Arnie as aircraft pilot to get them to the next golf date perhaps after they had just beaten Palmer. That’s putting faith into someone who might hold a grudge, but these three legends didn’t believe in such things. That’s golf, it brings an air of civility because it’s not the outcome that dictates what you feel it’s the experience.
A second reminder came while watching the semifinal game between the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame on Friday April 5 in the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship. After an undermanned, game UConn team gave up the ghost at the end, and ND looked to be in the clear with 6.6 seconds left, ND coach Muffet McGraw could be seen jumping up and down in glee with her staff, like a pom-pom cheerleader at the end of a routine. The universal, sportsmanlike conduct for all sports is that you don’t show up the opposition or celebrate or appear to be reveling about a victory out of respect for your opponent and the game until the buzzer sounds, especially the coach. It’s all part of why teams aren’t supposed to run up the score, or keep shooting 3s in a blowout or are to hold onto the ball and not take a shot at the end of the game when the shot-clock is off when you have the game in hand and the ball.
It has been chronicled that McGraw shows open disdain for UConn coach Gene Auriemma, so perhaps she was extra excited that she wouldn’t have to discuss a loss to him with the media. But she had also shown an uncivil demeanor in a pre-fourth-quarter TV interview when she basically said UConn was getting away with questionable (meaning illegal) screens for Huskie star Katie Lou Samuelson and she eventually abruptly walked away from the interview. ND was trailing by two at the time.
Players take their cue from their leader, the coach. That’s why some teams with coaches who react to every foul against their team by shaking their head in disbelief that their players do no wrong have players who react the same when called for a foul. They walk around shaking their head in shocked amazement translated to mean, “There’s no way I could commit a foul, you got it wrong.”
I appreciate losing coaches who pause after a loss during the post-game hand shake and look at their opposing colleague in the eye and say “your team played great, congrats.” Auriemma, who outside of UConn land is likely disliked, will conduct himself that way. In both the 2017 and 2018 Final Four semifinals, for instance, that was especially tough to do since UConn lost on shots at the buzzer both years. But you know what, Geno is also a golfer, and what he has learned on the golf course likely combines with a balanced “win some, lose some” aspect he knows happens in basketball.
I also like winning coaches who act with level-headed comportment. Kim Mulkey, whose Baylor team won the semifinal game prior to UConn-Notre Dame over Oregon, worked her way through the Oregon line after winning and made some short comments to the defeated Oregon Duck players who battled as hard as her Baylor team.
Which brings us all back to Palmer and Co., who gave us countless memorable battles but equally memorable reactions after the competition ended: Palmer with a firm handshake after losing the 1962 U.S. Open playoff to Nicklaus; Player and young Seve Ballesteros walking off the 18th green arm and arm after Gary’s incredible 1978 Masters comeback, and Jack, well, Jack was the example of how to do pretty much everything in golf great.
Nicklaus was humble and gracious in victory, especially in his 18 pro majors, but in 19 pro runner-up finishes in the majors, he was probably more impressive. When he was in position to react to the winner, he gave the champion a proper reception. You could assemble a video of Nicklaus’ reaction to runner-up finishes to Tom Watson at the 1977 Open Championship and 1982 U.S. Open and you’d be hard pressed to figure out that Jack was the second-place guy. Especially at the ’77 Open, Nicklaus notably told Watson that he gave Tom his best shot and it just wasn’t good enough that day.
Golfers celebrate on the golf course: for an ace, for a great shot, a birdie, a long holed putt. But that lasts a moment and goes away, but everyone celebrates with you. But to get excited about an opponent’s bad shot or that you are about to benefit from something someone else did or is about to do is seen as poor sportsmanship and not proper etiquette.
Call me overly sensitive on this issue, but don’t call me off track. Our top political officials don’t know how to lead with the truth, dignity, compromise, openness, modesty, fairness, and for the welfare of all. We are losing our way forward in society and going back to a time when leaders want to govern in a “do as I say, don’t ask any questions” manner that only serves to benefit a small privileged elite.
Golf refreshingly rejects such behavior and brings us to a common ground, where we can all feel as equals and when the game is done regale each other about how the experience made us feel excited that we had gone through it together and look forward to doing it again.