It started with Daniel Gavins’s win in Northern Ireland on the European Tour. This man who is little known outside his own household had hit millions of balls and walked thousands of miles in his pursuit of a career in professional golf and now he had achieved his first victory at the age of 30. It was “transformational,” he said, with a smile on his face as broad as his shoulders.
It continued when we heard of Annika Sörenstam’s victory in the US Women’s Senior Open. Mike McGee, her husband, was her caddie and Will, her son, and Ava, her daughter, walked inside the ropes making up a tight and proud family foursome. “It’s very different to share it with your loved ones, to have them walk the fairways and see what I do for a living and see what it takes to get there,” Sörenstam said. Surely no parent can fail to understand such sentiments.
Then we saw that Xander Schauffele had won the gold medal in the men’s golf event at the Tokyo Olympics. Seeing a man of whom not a bad word has been said win such a prize made us smile as had the return to form of Jordan Spieth, an admirable man and an admirable golfer. “As good a player as Jordan is, he is an even better person,” Rory McIlroy said of his peer recently.
Nelly Korda’s gold medal at the Olympics was pleasing and Collin Morikawa’s victory in last month’s Open Championship at Royal St George’s was gratifying. Morikawa is an extremely mature and well-adjusted 24-year-old who has already won two major championships. At Sandwich, he gave as gracious a winner’s speech as there has ever been, holding the microphone with ease and gracefully namechecking all those to whom he should say thank you. The British loved him, even forgiving him for calling it the British Open.
How is it that golf and golfers are able to put a smile on the face of so many, and why is this happening quite so often in golf these days? How is it that so many of the game’s leading players are well-rounded as individuals as well as golfers? They are showing a wiseness and consideration about and for others, and the problems they face, that is not always present among other top athletes. Is that why so many in golf seem to be beaming at the moment?
AA Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, wrote of golf that “it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.” Could it also be the best game in the world at which to be good? Nobody ever masters golf. There are days, possibly weeks, when its myriad complications are mysteriously easy to unlock but those spells are few and far between. The truth is, golf masters you.
It moulds you no matter how much you fight to resist it. It did so to Bobby Jones a century ago, turning him from a hot-headed young golfer into the man who personified the ideals, manners and behaviour of an amateur better than anyone.
It moulded Arnold Palmer – with a little help from Deacon, his father – from a fiery golfer into the competitive figure he was.
It also moulded Ken Brown and Mark James, two of Europe’s players who were nearly sent home for bad behaviour at the 1979 Ryder Cup match in the United States. Golf helped turn Brown into a much-loved television commentator recently honoured by the Queen for his services to sport and broadcasting, and James into a past chairman of the powerful Tournament Committee at the European Tour. The phrase “poacher turned gamekeeper” comes to mind.
Bryson DeChambeau remains a law unto himself, not yet fully rounded by golf. So does Tyrrell Hatton, who broke a golf club, swore audibly and raised a middle finger during a round at the Open.
This is the time of the Olympics, of remarkable achievements by supreme athletes. McIlroy and Justin Thomas both competed in the golf competition and both spoke warmly of the experience. “I was wrong at the Ryder Cup (when he dismissed its importance). I’ve been proven wrong this week and I’m happy to say that,” McIlroy said after losing out in a seven-man playoff for a bronze medal in Tokyo. And Thomas? “It (the Olympics) was cooler than I thought it was. I’m more proud of being here than I thought I would be. I thought I would be proud … this is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Matthew Syed is a former European table tennis champion and a columnist in The Sunday Times in London. “What a contrast these Olympians strike with popular culture and its celebration of mediocrity,” Syed wrote recently. “How they shame us for devoting so much cultural bandwidth to plastic celebrities who fall out of nightclubs, reality TV stars who eat testicles for the entertainment of millions who should know better, mouthpieces who jump on any passing soapbox to gain attention and boast about the size of their following, as if it were some kind of glorified digital penis.”
He talked of how Peter Charters, a table tennis coach, had taught him as much about life as about table tennis. That’s what golf does, too. It can change minds, bodies and lives. Want to know how to interact with your elders? Play golf with them. You will soon learn whether or not you are a clever dick, too boastful, too slow or even too fast. How? By osmosis or, more likely, they will tell you.
In the men’s locker room at my golf club hang two signs, two perfect maxims for this ancient game of ours.
“ … We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
The other says:
“Golf and coaching do not mix.
If you win by seven and six,
Apologise for what you’ve done
and write it down as two and one.”
Golf is a game for all ages, sizes and sexes. No wonder it is so popular. Play it, enjoy it and be exasperated by it, but most of all be influenced and shaped by it, probably for the better. Then you too will have a smile on your face. There are not many games about which that can be said.
Top photo: Jordan Spieth
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