Are any golf fans out there know how special early April is in the calendar. This is the month when professional golf’s first of four majors, The Masters, takes place in spring’s full bloom of Augusta, Georgia. What a site. My response is always to marvel at the handiwork of a God who could conceive of and create such beauty, and how people can take the raw material of His creation and turn it into something ineffable.
Then there is golf. There are very few sports where you can win by losing, but golf is certainly one of those. Such happened on Sunday afternoon on the rolling hills of Augusta National, the course the great Bobby Jones developed with Alister Mackenzie after he retired from competitive golf at the tender age of 29. This 75th Masters was as exciting and as heartbreaking as any that came before.
For three rounds the 21 year old Irish phenom, Rory McIlroy, played superb golf and headed into the final round with a four stroke lead. This doesn’t happen very often to one so young, and the question for any leader at the final round of a major was only accentuated by McIlroy’s youth: Could he handle the pressure?
The crushing pressure of a final round of one of golf’s majors is hard to describe for those who have never played the game competitively, let alone for those who have never played it at all. The venue of Augusta National, with its rolling hills, majestic pine trees, and spectator-friendly confines makes the ebb and flow of birdies and bogeys palpable; the cheers and groans reverberate in ways that affect players like no other course on the PGA tour.
Even though we have not experienced such a competitive environment, golf is unlike any other sport, in that anyone can play the game, regardless of age or skill. It is estimated that there are upwards of 30 million or more golfers in America, and every one of those knows the joys and pain of the game. Professional golfers simply know this at a different level. This empathy can’t really be known in any other sport, at least not in the same way. Many Americans played baseball, basketball, or football in their youth, but relatively few play as adults.
It is this connection that made Sunday such a special day, and one so painful to watch. Young McIlroy had a shaky start, but he kept it together through the first nine holes. He was still in the lead at that point, but Tiger Woods and a slew of others were climbing up the leader board. Than it all went to hell. McIlroy pulled his drive so far left on the 10th hole that his ball ended up between some cabins on the property nobody had ever seen on TV. A triple bogey there, followed by a bogey and a double bogey, made you want to avert your eyes from the screen.
CBS, which does a tremendous job every year broadcasting The Masters, mercifully let him play out the misery of his final holes in private, until he walked up number 18. Then something happened that you don’t often see when failures come limping home across the finish line: he received a standing ovation. It reminded me of some marathoner running in an Olympics some time ago who long after everyone else had finished dragged himself across the finish line with the crowd cheering his sheer guts and fortitude for not giving up.
And what should come across the face of this young man McIlroy as he endured the last moments of his humiliation and encountered such a sympathetic crowd? A sheepish grin, along with the likely thought, thank God it’s over.
Even more impressive was seeing how this 21 year old responded after the disaster had been displayed for all the world to see. With dignity and grace, he granted every interview, explaining the unexplainable over and over again. Every commentator who knew the young man could attest to his solid character prior to Sunday’s disaster. After losing in spectacular fashion and responding in a maturity beyond his years, his character will only be strengthened as he seeks to rebound from a disappointment not many will be blessed ever toknow.