Sports Are Hard to Play Well, but Not As Hard to Understand As Is ThoughtSergio Garcia won the Masters yesterday, his first major tournament victory in almost two decades at the top level of professional golf. His melodramatic playoff triumph over Justin Rose was as packed with plot twists Shondra Rhimes can only envy this morning.
As is the custom, Garcia was draped in the green jacket of Augusta National. As is also golf's invariable custom, he was then enveloped in a cloud of psychobabble. No sport is so relentlessly insistent that it's a game of mind, no, soul, over matter. This is true to some extent, but not nearly as much as golf writers and broadcast commentators try to tell us. They (many of whom are former players and should know better) prefer a spiritual explanation of events to a mundane physical one such as "Sergio made some damn good shots because he's got talent."
On the Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee attributed Garcia's victory to "love," meaning Garcia's attitude towards golf had improved due to his recent engagement. I wish Garcia and his future bride every happiness, but if the love of a good woman is the key to winning golf, how come I haven't bagged an Open or two? Could it because I don't play very well?
On a slightly less ethereal plane, other commentators and columnists declared Garcia had learned to overcome his psychic handicaps, a bad case of rabbit ears and a tendency to have his whole game go south in the clutch. This facile portrayal of Garcia is "volatile" reminds us that much golf commentary is still based on the national prejudices of early 20th century England. "He's a Spainard, don't you know?" It's also based on three established facts. Garcia suffered a significant number of close but no cigar finishes in previous majors, some of those were due to putting woes, and went through a very public display of total frustration with his game in 2009-2010.
Gosh, a golfer succumbing to frustration! That's never happened before, except to every man, woman and child who ever swung a club. They almost all end when the golfer remembers that the sport's ever so much fun and that he/she isn't nearly as bad as he/she feared. Even before the Masters, there was a lot of discussion of a "new," happier Sergio. Could it be Garcia came to terms with the fact that major win or no, being among the top 20 golfers on earth wasn't so bad, and just went back to practicing and playing? If he did, well, that's the recovery process for all golfers, from hackers to champs.
Funny thing. In the final round of his victory yesterday, Garcia displayed every one of the alleged psychic crises that were the supposed causes of his past defeats. No one has ever denied Garcia's skill from tee to green, yet on the 10th tee he became distracted by noises off and duffed a drive, followed by another noises off distraction and a comically inaccurate approach. A classic rabbit ears bogey led to a following bogey and a drive into an unplayable lie on the 13th hole. Hundreds of word processors in the press center began showing variations of "same old Sergio."
Garcia saved par on that hole, birdied the 14th and eagled the 15th. This might be because his inner man has undergone a complete overhaul in the last few months, but a more likely explanation is that he's always been a superb shotmaker, and he made some when it would do him the most good because odds are any shot Garcia hits will be a good one.
Putting is the subject of more highfalutin' psycho-hooey than any other part of golf, because of the anomaly that while it is the most difficult skill in the game, it's the one that looks the easiest. Hackers in the galleries or at home on TV find it impossible to imagine that pros who can whack the ball more than 300 yards find it just as hard to a make 10 footers as they do. If they'd check out the stats on PGATour.com, they'd see putting comes unnaturally to all of the world's best. They can't all be chokers.
Garcia missed a tiddling putt on 16 and a six-footer on 18 that would have won the tournament in regulation. Cue the "same old Sergio" ledes once more. It's too boring to state the obvious. "Garcia has never been a particularly good putter, and that bit him at crucial points down the stretch."
In the playoff, Justin Rose hit a drive that doomed him to bogey and Garcia made a flawless birdie, 10-foot putt included. Therefore, by the iron illogic of 21st century sports analysis, in two plus hours of golf, Garcia gave himself a soul makeover from insecure innate loser to lionhearted champion.
Golf is kinder than other sports. None of its commentators would declare that Rose choked. Nobody would dare to say that psychic weakness had anything to do with Jordan Spieth's final round 75. They shouldn't, either. Spieth suffered a fate we've all seen in a million basketball games. He got way down early due to a quadruple bogey in the first round, fought his way back to contention, and found the fight had left him too spent to actually win. That's not a matter of virtue or the lack of same. It's Jerry West's old truth that "being behind makes you tired." Sports, even golf, are about energy.
If there's one real-life virtue needed in professional sports, it's perseverance. Garcia had it. He didn't give up on his game or the countless hours of drill needed to stay competitive in it. He at least ignored the thought that doom was his inevitable fate in majors, and kept on showing up for them. And in the 2017 Masters, persistence was rewarded, combined with the fair amount of luck needed to win any tournament and last but hardly least, Garcia's finely holed talent.
The need to make sports events tales of the mind and soul is understandable. Fans may not be able to break 90, or dunk a basketball, or hit a slider, but we all have thoughts and emotions. It's comforting to believe thoughts and emotions determine victory and defeat because it makes it so much easier to identify with the men and women who play those sports for their living and our amusement.
All top jocks have thoughts and emotions, too. But even in slowpoke golf, the sport where competitors have by far the most time to wrestle with their inner selves, thoughts and emotions come in a well beaten second to raw talent seasoned by a lifetime devoted to mastering techniques. Maybe this morning Rose is indulging in regrets and self second-guessing. Yesterday, he didn't think about anything about the next shot until he took his last one.
Want the real story of the 2017 Masters. Here it is. Sergio Garcia, one of the 20 or so men capable of winning any golf tournament he enters, did so yesterday in highly dramatic style.
Want the real story of sports commentary? If I had been covering instead of watching the 2017 Masters on TV, I would never have dared to write such a lede. And if I had, the editors would've spiked it. The idea that games of the body are actually mind games is the one is one myth that can't be challenged. Fans wouldn't stand for it.