Grace Under Pressure…and Class in the Aftermath

I have had a life-long love affair with golf.  For anyone who has ever played a round or two with me, that may come as a surprise.  To put it bluntly, I’m awful.  I once went to a teaching pro looking for help with my swing.  After ten minutes of observing me on the range the pro told me his advice would be to take two weeks off, then give up the game.

Okay, so that’s an old joke and didn’t really happen, but it’s an accurate description of my golfing ability (or lack thereof).  Nevertheless, I am passionate about the game.  Unlike so many other individual sports, it simply cannot be mastered.  It’s maddening, but all it takes is one great shot out of the hundred or so hit during a round to give you hope and a reason to come back for more.

Aside from college football, golf is my favorite sport to watch on television.  Just a few weeks ago it was time for that “tradition unlike any other … the Masters!”  I’ll admit that televised golf isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I do know quite a few people who care nothing about golf yet enjoy watching the Masters.  First, it’s the course itself.  Augusta National Golf Club is the Rembrandt of golf courses.  It is stunning on television and I’ve been told that it’s so much more beautiful in person.  Second, the tournament is always great theater.  Simply put, you don’t have to be a golf fan to get pulled into the drama of Sunday afternoon at the Masters.

This year promised to be a memorable viewing experience.  Tiger Woods is no longer a dominant figure in the world of professional golf, and he has been replaced by a bevy of young golfers who are supremely talented and exciting to watch.  They go by names like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler.  They are all in their twenties, all seem like genuinely nice people, and all have had moments over the past couple of years that leave fans shaking their heads in amazement.  Yes, the 2016 Masters was going to be an exciting one for sure.

And it was, but not in a way that anyone might have predicted.  Jordan Spieth, the 22 year old Texan who had won the tournament the year before, battled the wind, the golf course and the pressure better than anyone else for 63 holes, meaning he led the field by a whopping five strokes with only nine holes left to play.  But true to the old adage that “the Masters doesn’t really begin until  the back nine on Sunday,” something unimaginable happened.  Spieth, who has been almost universally praised for his composure and his mental toughness, had a meltdown.  Over the course of three holes (or about half an hour in real time), his five stroke lead became a three shot deficit, thanks to some poor play and even poorer decision making.  Simply put, it was a train wreck.  Everyone was shell-shocked, no one more so than Spieth himself.  His crash-and-burn moment was spectacular in its magnitude, played out on the grandest stage of them all, with millions of viewers worldwide witnessing it as it happened.  In the end, he had gift-wrapped the championship for a little-known Englishman named Danny Willett, who will forever be a footnote to the story of this year’s tournament.  No, the real story was the collapse of Jordan Spieth, done in by sending two consecutive balls to a watery grave in Rae’s Creek on the short par three 12th hole.

For many casual golf fans, the story ends there.  Spieth “choked” away his chance at history.  He succumbed to the pressure and let nerves get the better of him.  But I will submit that there is much more to the story than this.  While it did nothing to change the outcome of the tournament, the story continued long after the final putt dropped into the cup on the 18th hole.

For more than a decade Tiger Woods set the bar low when it came to post-round conduct.  Golf fans were subjected to his guarded press conferences, his curt, canned responses to questions and his air of superiority in his many moments of success.  In the face of his occasional failures, however, we usually heard nothing, as he would often high-tail it out of town without a word.  This is not an indictment of Woods, as it is not always a pleasant task to face the music and respond to all of the second guessing with class.  But it is what we came to expect from Woods and others who came up short when it mattered most.  In a solitary sport like golf, I guess sometimes it’s just easier to go home and lick your wounds without dealing with the press and the public.

The defeat suffered by Jordan Spieth at this year’s Masters was as crushing a loss as has ever been witnessed on a golf course.  Some are calling it the biggest collapse in the tournament’s history.  When Spieth walked off the course, he had that deer-in-the-headlights look about him.  Eyes red and watery, he wandered off the course to deal with his emotions.  And then, something surprising happened.  He emerged for an interview with one of the CBS analysts.  He answered every question.  He tried to make sense of it all.  He made no excuses.  He congratulated the winner.  And he spoke from his heart, wearing his emotions on his sleeve and sharing them with the world.  And then, possibly harder still, he forced a smile as he fulfilled his duty to place the green jacket, symbolic of a Masters victory, around the shoulders of Danny Willett.  Not once, but twice, Spieth played the part of the congratulating former champion, doing his best to allow the new champion to bask in the glory of his victory.  What Jordan Spieth did in the hour after he finished play was so much more impressive than anything anyone had done on the course that day.  He displayed grace under pressure when he did not have to, and class in the aftermath of one of the most crushing defeats in the game’s long history.

I’ve heard it said that your reputation is what other people think you are, while your character is what you really are.   Before this year’s Masters, Jordan Spieth already had a spotless reputation.  Now people have gotten a glimpse at his character.

So many in our profession — myself included — could take a lesson from Jordan Spieth.  We should be humble in our successes and forthcoming in our defeats.  We should always extend a hand of congratulations when our opponent gets the better of us.  We should never pout, point fingers or make excuses.  Instead, we should own up to our mistakes and vow to work harder so that the outcome may be different the next time.  The prize may not be a green jacket, but it will be the respect of our peers, and in my book that’s worth far more than any silly golf tournament.

Jimmy Lawson

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