I was rooting for Jordan Spieth to win his third major golf championship in a row. The astonishingly talented young man fell one shot short.
However, one of the classiest men in all of sports — not just golf — did win. Zach Johnson would bring, does bring, class, quiet, gentle charm, great good sportsmanship to every moment of every golf tournament in which he participates.
As it happens, he’s also one of the finest golfers in the world. Ever so quietly, he appears at or near the top of the leaderboard week in and week out. And he’s done so for years.
Golf is overloaded with graceful ambassadors — people who represent the game in the public eye — in as fine a manner as any sport would ever want.
After all, there’s Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, for current golfers, and the older golfers are well-represented by great, good sports: Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and more.
At the very pinnacle of this group of quiet, talented athletes and sportsmen is Zach Johnson. Know who else is right up there? Jordan Spieth: the guy who has to be the most disappointed golfer in the world today. He ended up one shot back, in fourth place.
Many people already regard young Spieth as the best golfer in the world, and a victory in the British Open would have ended any debate whatsoever. There is an order of magnitude of difference between what would have been if he had won, and what is now, that he came in second. You can tell the kid wants it. He makes no bones about it.
After he departed the 18th and final hole, having missed a four-way playoff by one stroke, Spieth stayed around to be sure to congratulate the eventual winner, Zach Johnson. He made sure to do the crowd clap at the end. He did everything to show that he was a great golfer, but that it was also really important to be a good sport.
Only golf has such people. And it has lots of such people. It’s practically a requirement of being a great golfer. The only prominent exception — the scowling, brooding, petulant, spoiled brat Tiger Woods — proves the point. Woods’ silly immaturity is mild compared to most sports, but it stands out starkly in golf, because everyone else acts so much better, so much classier.
Oh, golf has its scandals — Dustin Johnson last year got caught engaging in ummm… substance abuse — and took some six or so months off. Other than Tiger Woods’ really rotten personal behavior — again, the exception — that’s about it. Oh, there’ve been more, but there is so much social and peer pressure to be a good guy, that it produces results… and great sportsmanship.
I can’t help thinking that every top golfer realizes deep down that, bottom line, he’s paid a lot of money to hit a small ball into a hole usually about 1,300 to 1,400 feet away, and to do that in as few shots as possible. If someone were to ask him, “What’s the point?” he’d be worried that he couldn’t give an answer that would justify all the money.
At the same time, I know the answer. I’ve played with lots of people like Tiger, Phil, Zach, Dustin, and I’ve seen their concentration, and their focus. They want to tour the course, having vanquished it, every time they go out. It’s absolutely a proxy for war, and for jousting, and for the daily wrestling and grappling with other people, other companies, other cities, states, regions and countries, other ideas, beliefs and thinking, that we all partake in each day.
You can make a straight line connecting the dots between sinking a 15-foot putt to win the Masters, or the British Open, and defeating tyranny on a continent. In-between those extremes lies the line that divides civilization and chaos. Every sport has that; only golf lives, breathes, is the understanding that — it’s still only golf.
That’s why I’m always a good sport on the golf course. My betters have set the standard, and if I can’t equal the quality of their play, I am in control of how good a man, and how good a sport I am. On the golf course, I will be as good a man as Zach Johnson, even if I can’t be close to as good a golfer.
Even knowing all that, I’m still not convinced that I’ve given you an answer that satisfies you, rather than simply making you roll your eyes and think, “Oh, brother!”
But, I’m satisfied, and I still play, and I still love to stand at the tee box, to look out at the flag — sometimes more than a quarter-mile away! — and think: “I’m going to try really hard to put this ball into that hole in four shots, and I think I’ve got a shot at it.”
One more quick note about the 2015 British Open: The massive, howling absence, the loud, honking, shrieking non-presence, in this year’s British Open was: Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, himself a classy, nice young man. Oh, and the #1-ranked golfer in the world. What a great game!