PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship delivered a class act as its champion early Sunday evening.
The most boisterous of those fans at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course got a better winner than they deserved in Rickie Fowler.
Those who heckled Sergio Garcia through the back nine couldn’t have been golf fans because they would have known a derisively aimed barb in this game isn’t the same as it is in a baseball, basketball or football game. A taunt in a golfer’s backswing is more like a fan running onto the football field and tripping a running back racing up a sideline. It can unfairly interfere with the final outcome. It can mar the competition.
Most of us, I think, are tuning in to see the world’s best players decide who wins a championship, not some idiot fan with a belly full of booze.
As is usually the case, it was an obnoxious minority standing out Sunday, but more than the usual few in that natural amphitheater around the 17th island hole.
Both Fowler and Garcia handled the unique challenges this past week with a dignity that fans who care about the game’s special values appreciate. For all the grief Garcia has received for painting himself as a victim of bad fortune in the past, he navigated above the fray during and after his round. He may have learned the hard way, but he deserves credit. Garcia was a model of restraint and grace under fire.
Sunday wasn’t just a day the world’s best players got to show off their tremendous skill on a larger stage than their niche sport is accustomed. It was a day they got to show off how their sport aspires to be admirably different, even with barbarians at the gate.
No, this isn’t to say golfers are perfect. They’re as flawed and corruptible as athletes from other sports, but the honor is in how the game aspires to be different. It’s in how the game holds its participants to a higher standard. The sport aims for a standard of civility that matters more than ever.
At a time when blow-hard chest thumping, taunting and deflating footballs are the growing norm in a world where sportsmanship seems to matter less and less, Fowler and Garcia reminded us what’s still possible. They didn’t just deliver high drama along with Kevin Kisner and others. They delivered it nobly.
While there are sure to be folks rolling their eyes reading this, dismissing the message as naïve, prudish and even out of touch, the game’s line of civility moves when nobody cares to notice.
Competition is based on the Latin word competere, which means to strive together. Michael Josephson of the Josephson Institute of Ethics once instructed this writer that sportsmanship is based on the ancient Olympic ideal that you honor your opponent because you’re striving for excellence together. Your opponent makes you better.
Sportsmanship is civility’s first cousin.
“Manners are more important than laws,” British statesman Edmund Burke once wrote. “Upon them in a great measure the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe ... They aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”
There was refinement in Fowler’s and Garcia’s efforts.
Fowler might have been privately angry over learning his peers voted he and Ian Poulter the most overrated players on the PGA Tour in an anonymous survey last week, but he was old school in the way he handled it. There was no knee-jerk rebuke. He didn’t shut down with his fellow players or media.
“Rickie doesn’t work that way,” Fowler’s mother, Lynn, said shortly after Sunday’s trophy presentation. “I don’t think he works like that, based on something negative, at all.”
Fowler obviously relished proving he isn’t overrated.
“I laughed at the poll, but, yeah, if there was any question, I think this right here answers anything you need to know,” Fowler said.
That’s as close as Fowler got to sticking what his victory means in anyone’s face.
Instead, Fowler let his clubs do the talking for him. And, wow, he couldn’t have designated more eloquent spokesmen.
That’s old school.
Fowler’s 3-wood at the 16th in regulation on Sunday – that was a statement. He carved a 240-yard shot over the edge of the lake to 2 feet to set up eagle. He made statements with all those wedges he hit in close making birdie three times at the 17th. He did again with those two 330-yard drives down the middle of the 18th fairway, maybe his best shots all week.
Garcia endured heckling on the back nine. His caddie even asked for extra security after making the turn. Garcia had to step off his shot at the 17th tee because of the abuse.
“Obviously, some guys there don’t deserve to be here watching golf,” Garcia said.
Like Fowler, Garcia kept answering with his clubs. He was at his most eloquent holing a 40-footer for birdie at the 17th to help him get in the playoff with Fowler and Kisner.
“We all three did some amazing things coming in,” Garcia said. “I thought it was a well-played championship.”
It was more than that. It was well conducted. That matters, too.