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Friday, April 17, 2015

Golf and Character: My Take on Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth's Thank You Note
This thank you note from 15-year old Jordan Spieth rolled across my Facebook page recently.  It says much about the character of its author and also suggest much about the sport he loves.

I've long believed that because of its nature the game of golf provides a lens through which the interior character of individual golfers is revealed.  Even in team events like the Curtis Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup and their various spin-offs, collective success or failure is the cumulative product of individual performance rather than the result of a collaborative effort.

In golf there's no equivalent to baseball's relief pitcher or football's field goal kicker.  There are no time outs that allow for a pep talk from the coach or a cooling off from the intensity of competition, no switching from offensive to defensive squads.

Further, golf doesn't have "opponents."  From the first tee shot to the last putt, golfers are contesting, against each other to be sure but, ultimately, against the golf course and the theoretical abstract that Bobby Jones described as Old Man Par.  Golf is a sport that's played in solitude, at once terrifying and comforting, simultaneously opaquely invisible and utterly familiar.   As a result, golf provides a playing ground where individual character is built and where it's starkly tested.  Last week Jordan Spieth took that character test for the second time on Augusta National Golf Club's hallowed ground and he passed with flying colors.

Much has been written recently about Jordan Spieth as he's transitioned from one of a number of Young Turks on the PGA Tour likely to make a charge at the Cultural Icon slot Tiger Woods has vacated to his current position as leader of the pack.

While Nike gambled that Tiger's heir apparent would be Rory McIlroy, that turned out not to be the case, at least for the moment.  The green jacket slipped through the grasp of the world's top-ranked golfer for the 4th time.

Spieth's four-day, record-making tour de force around the Augusta National track -- a wire-to-wire win that hasn't been accomplished for a generation -- was certainly impressive and had most of us who love the game cheering him on from behind the physical and virtual ropes.  I confess that by Sunday afternoon when the young guy from Dallas made the turn I was holding my breath every time he hit the ball.

And when he gave back that shot that would have taken him beyond Tiger's record and claimed his own green jacket with a score that kept him even with the Big Cat, I momentarily lost sight of the fact that Spieth has achieved the goal he'd set for himself six years earlier.  Jordan Spieth was rightly competing against Old Man Par, not the mythos of Tiger Woods.  That's why he explained his victory as "this is the way I should be playing."

Much has been made in the electronic press about Spieth's financial success, beginning with his new house, implicitly posing the unasked question: What does a 21-year old single guy need with a $2.7 million gated mansion?  Then, in the wake of his Masters victory, a new wave of press commentary focused on his increased value, driven, I sense, by a thinly disguised envy of the spike in earning power his triumph in Augusta has generated.

Spieth's understated Twitter response to the endorsement and sponsorship bonanza that has predictably followed his Masters win -- I'm enjoying the business side of golf -- lets me know his feet are firmly on the ground.

Jordan Spieth's selfie from the NYC Empire State Building
Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, less attention has been focused on the relationship between hard work and the achievement of long-term goals that Jordan Spieth's Masters victory represents.  Spieth's been cast into a Cinderella-type model that's far from accurate.  He's a scholarship kid who's worked hard to get a shot at a goal he set when he was was fifteen years old.  He's a guy who plays by the rules and who honors his commitments, from Puerto Rico in 2014 to Hilton Head in 2015.  

Spieth seems to manage the stress of competition by staying in the moment and working to deliver the best he has rather than wasting his talent and energy flailing and scowling and prowling and growling.  He demands from himself an extraordinary level of excellence, and then he delivers it with an intensity that's a bit unnerving, while managing to remain both polite and affable.

It's not unseemly to enjoy the fruits of success and Jordan Spieth clearly enjoyed his madcap VIP romp through New York City during the week following his Masters victory.  Maybe he danced until dawn with a beautiful blonde model but I rather doubt it.  He's been dating the same girl since they were both in high school.  Maybe he popped champagne corks as the night turned to day in a bacchanalian romp at a a Soho disco but we didn't get any pictures from the golf paparazzi -- and surely they wouldn't have missed an opportunity to document some even marginally rowdy behavior from this guy who seems to epitomize the American ideal of young manhood.

Spieth's selfie from the top of the Empire State Building says it all for me.  Alone, on the top of the world, the 15-year old boy smiling out from the man's body, wrapped in the symbol of a goal achieved, enjoying the solitude of his moment.

What's next for Jordan Spieth?  My crystal ball tells me more of the same, but perhaps a kinder, gentler, more reasoned and measured version of athletic stardom.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Deactivated or Finished?

Tiger Woods, Deactivated or Finished?
Is this about Tiger, or is it about something bigger than any individual?  The latter, I think.  This is about why we do what we do, in work and in play, about who and what we choose to represent our ideals, and about how we manage tarnished images.  It might also be about how we know when it's time to refocus our physical and mental energies, about how we manage change when what we're doing no longer brings a greater measure of joy and delight than pain and suffering, when what was at one time an exhilarating challenge has become a grinding, painful drudge.  But I think at the core this is about letting go of an icon.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winter Golf Blues? Try This!

Has anybody else just about reached the end of their emotional rope trying to play golf on dormant grass, no grass, even mud?  I've come close to slitting my wrists more than once over the last month as I've skulled chip after chip and watched my ball perform what would in other circumstances be a stunning imitation of Hans Brinker on his Silver Skates as it zipped across the green, inches from the cup, coming to rest in what in April will be the second cut of rough but what is right now a snarled tangle of dormant grass, leaving me an impossible 4th shot just to get to the putting surface on a par-4 I routinely bogey.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Golf, Oui -- Jihadis, Non

I generally maintain an impermeable boundary between what I write here and the larger world of war and politics and global epidemics.  To be sure, I'm aware of and sensitive to the depths of human misery and suffering forged in those crucibles, but this is a place where I write about the mysteries surrounding the game of golf and, in a compact with my readers, this is a place apart from the human tragedies that surround and bombard us to which you, my readers, can retreat for a brief respite.

Tonight I'm breaking that compact.  To my sorrow, France -- that nation that provided the intellectual synergy and enlightenment that inspired the American Revolution, the culture that set the 20th century standard for sophistication and inclusion, that place where fine food is a taken-for-granted basic human right, where street vendors ply their trade with a panache that escapes ordinary folk elsewhere, the nation that has suffered and resisted and survived occupation, a place I have visited again and again, and a place that I love despite the haughty scorn I endure when I attempt to communicate in French (I long ago gave up and turned to the more universal language of American Express) -- has joined the ranks of jihadi's victims.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Endings, Beginnings, & A Meditation on the Game of Golf

Alma Barnes, Me & Bonnie Bell (left to right)
Despite the problematic weather I got in my traditional New Year's Eve and New Year's Day rounds again this year.  I typically play these two rounds solo and use my time alone on the golf course for some quiet meditation and reflection -- about the year that's passing, about the year that's promising, about how I'm doing managing my life -- but when I offered last week to make a New Year's Eve tee time for the Star Fort Ladies Golf Association a number of women perked up and said they'd enjoy a round too.

We were all monitoring the long-range forecast and the sun was predicted to make a brief appearance between two winter storms marching across the continent.  Still, after several days of cold rain I wasn't too surprised when I arrived at the golf course to find that our number had dwindled to three: Alma, Bonnie, and me.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Come On! Let's Just Get In A Quick One!

Wes has dropped in for a quick Christmas visit, tucking me in between a stop in Florida and his Virginia holiday blowout.  I had a short list of chores only a son can complete ready for him, and he had a short list of things I needed to help with, including a particularly delicate shopping assignment, but then the sun peeked out.  You know what happened!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

It's Cold. It's Raining. It's Saturday. I'm Golfing!

What's with this golf obsession?  The weather outside is frightful . . . and I'm planning on teeing off at my usual Saturday morning time.  What am I thinking?  There are three shopping days remaining until Christmas.  My shopping isn't finished! I can't imagine that any other Star Fort Ladies Golf Association members will be teeing it up on this cold, west Saturday morning.

My list of undone tasks is way too long -- pay bills, change the parrots' papers (a healthy parrot poops every 15 minutes, around the clock and there are five healthy parrots in my life happily pooping in concert), shop for stocking stuffers, get the guest room comforter off the shelf and into a duvet cover and onto the bed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Not Front Page News? Some Thoughts on Ben Martin, Shanshan Feng & Laetitia Beck

Ben Martin's putting clinic at Shriners Hospital fort
Children-Greenville, SC.  Photo credit: Scott Chancey,
Greenwood Index-Journal.
As November has segued into December and 2014 begins its rollover into 2015, we've been bombarded with a wave of devastating and horrifying media images ranging from videotaped beheadings to mass protests difficult to distinguish from the freedom marches of the 1960s to the wholesale destruction of Syria, town-by-town, to the slaughter of a school full of children and their teachers in Pakistan.

The 24-hour news cycle has made it possible to follow, almost shot-by-shot, the search for a crazed cop-killer in Pennsylvania and the attempt to liberate a cafe packed with terrified customers being held hostage in Sydney by a crazed jihadi, or was he?

Have I omitted something?  Probably.  It's been almost too much to absorb.  Am I getting desensitized to mass violence?   Or am I, in the golf season interregnum, just more attuned to the 24-hour news cycle blood and guts filler?

Let's get back to golf, the sport with a social conscience, played by folks at all levels who have the capacity to forge bonds and partnerships, friendships and economic alliances that transcend the divisions of race, religion, and political ideology.

To achieve that refocus, allow me to share with you three of my current favorite golf cameos:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Time With Mickey Wright & Harvey Penick, A Guest Post by Sam Adams


Sam Adams, Essentially Golf
I met Sam Adams through the Google+ Golf Community (if you love golf and aren't a member of the Community you're missing an opportunity to connect with others who share your passion) and discovered that while we've never met Sam's living and teaching golf within about 30 miles of my home base.  As our conversations unfolded I also discovered that his approach to teaching draws on his friendships Mickey Wright and Harvy Penick, golfers I admire enormously.  

Mickey Wright played on the LPGA Tour from 1955 to 1969, was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1964, has been named all-time top woman golfer by both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and penned Play Golf the Wright Way, a book I return to again and again as I continue to refine my relationship with this pesky, humbling, befuddling game that so engages me.  I was more than a little impressed when Sam shared with me that he's actually played a round or two with her.

My son Wes introduced me to Harvey Penick and his little red books several years ago when he tucked a couple of the volumes into my carry-on bag at the conclusion of one of our golf matches and said, You'll enjoy reading these on your way across the country at 32,000 feet.  Wes was correct.  I've read them all now, but my favorite is For All Who Love The Game: Lessons and Teachings for Women.  Although he's best remembered as Ben Crenshaw's coach (it's said Harvey continued to provide guidance to Crenshaw from his deathbed), like my current swing coach, Tommy Pendley, Harvey Penick had that rare capacity to nurture the golfer who lives inside many women and his writings speak to me and inspire me.  

How could I go wrong with a guest post from a fellow South Carolinian who's learned his trade from these two golf luminaries?  I couldn't.  So here's Sam's guest post on the wisdom and the inspiration he gained from Mickey Wright and her coach, Harvey Penick: