April 16, 2010
Sometimes it’s a little too easy to invest too much meaning into what is, after all, a goofy sport that involves a few hundred acres, 18 small holes, and a little white ball.
That said, this year’s Masters Tournament gave its patrons and viewers a glimpse into the character of its players, and perhaps a bit more.
Consider those who competed in the last few groups.
Prior to the event, Ricky Barnes stood at about 178th in the world rankings. After a stirring second place finish in last year’s U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Barnes had essentially disappeared for a spell, only to come to Augusta on the strength of last June’s efforts.
Barnes played well for three days, but struggled a bit in the Sunday pressure. He walked to the 18th green, with his ball sitting just off the downhill edge. Barnes then hit a beautiful chip shot that curled into the cup for an unlikely birdie. He grinned broadly, responded to the cheers with a twirling doff of his cap, and kept grinning all the way to the scorer’s tent.
Anthony Kim showed signs of true putting genius on the back nine. He played holes thirteen through sixteen in five under, and finished the last two holes in even par, recovering from a couple of squirrelly swings. Kim smiled at the crowds at every opportunity, and as he finished, put on a lengthy handshake maneuver with his equally excited caddie. The crowd loved his youthful enthusiasm.
Tiger Woods’ conduct on Sunday was far harder to like. His temper flared on a few occasions, which is neither surprising nor all that unusual for most golfers. His legendary skills at concentration disappeared on a few occasions, such as during a three-putt episode on the seventeenth hole. That also is not too surprising, given his absence from competition for the last several months.
With victory no longer a viable option, the allegedly reforming hound dog was nonetheless able to fire in a close approach shot on the 18th hole. Then he made his birdie putt.
At that point, I felt Woods blew it. He waved at the hole with a smirking dismissive gesture, which I took as a continued sign that his journey to full adulthood still requires some additional travel. Woods compounded this impression during his post-round interview with CBS broadcaster Peter Kostis, in which Woods stiffly remarked that he only entered the event because he wanted to win it.
Woods’ conduct as he finished on Sunday stood out in stark contrast to the quiet smile his playing companion, K. J. Choi, gave to the crowd as he finished up his par on the same hole.
Choi’s steady play gave him a very good chance to win the tournament, until a pair of errors on the 13th and 14th holes took him out of contention. Nonetheless, Choi gave no sign of petulance or pique at his performance, and continued his cordial style of play all the way to the end.
The eventual champion also showed his character on several occasions that Sunday afternoon. Phil Mickelson made his usual Phil-like recovery shots, including his best one, a stunning approach shot to the par-5 13th green that stopped a few feet below the hole.
He missed the eagle, but came back with the birdie. He added to his margin of victory on the 15th and then the 18th hole, all the while making that sheepish, Hugh Grant-like grin whenever some amazing shot would come off just as he and the crowd hoped it would.
His finest moment came immediately after the round, as he embraced his cancer-stricken wife, Amy. The television camera leaned in, and caught a tear rolling down his cheek as they clasped together.
It wasn’t about him. It was about his family, and what they’ve been through in the months since the awful diagnosis hit them by surprise.
That has been Mickelson’s true test of character, and I am very happy that he passed with flying colors.