In the words of legendary Green Bay Packer football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Those words rang true with me when I considered the meaning of sport for many years.
No matter how amazing an athlete performed, no matter how many obstacles an athlete overcame in the process of competition, losing only meant one thing: You weren’t good enough.
Thanks to Tom Watson’s ethereal performance last week on the fabled Ailsa Course at Turnberry, Scotland, I am rethinking the merit of these beliefs.
No offense to Lombardi, but Watson’s play on the fabled wind-swept links of Turnberry this weekend has made Lombardi’s famous quote seem myopic. The 2009 British Open, and Watson’s improbable run and near record shattering victory, have proven that there is so much more than victory and defeat when it comes to such a competition.
Furthermore, I’m sure Lombardi, avid golfer that he was, would feel the same way if he had been around to witness Watson turn back the clock. Watson’s stunning performance has made me acutely aware of the fact that in sports there is a potential for depth and meaning that far supersedes the simplistic measuring stick that winning and losing offers us.
While Watson’s captivating quest to become the oldest man in the history of golf to win a Major Championship fell short yesterday, his achievement has transcended the standards by which we typically measure athletic endeavors.
The 59-year-old with the deepening laugh lines, and the leathery crease-filled neck that looked like it had been sand papered by the sun, has rendered not only winning and losing insignificant by his efforts—he’s also rendered the harrowing spectre of aging insignificant as well.
But it took a while for me to understand all this.
I, too, cringed When Watson’s four day quest to win the Claret Jug ended with a late spate of poor shot making. As he failed to sink the eight-foot putt that would have given us the most perfect fairy tale ending that golf has ever seen, my heart sank to the floor. Never before had I wanted a golfer to succeed as much.
I found myself temporarily downtrodden as it became clear that Watson had failed to close the deal. I sank into my chair and cursed the the evil fate that had done him in.
Then I realized, as I watched Watson’s classy reaction to his defeat: This year's British Open was about so much more than the leaderboard. It was about dignity. It was about spirituality. It was about striving to be perpetually young at heart, and young in spirit, and the belief—the proof—that you could really achieve that end.
And the words of a slightly elated and slightly disappointed Watson went a long way at quelling my sadness. “But you're going to ask me, what do I take from this week?” Said Watson to a room full of media after the conclusion of the tournament.
“Well, I take from this week just a lot of warmth, a lot of spirituality in the sense that, you know, there was something out there. I still believe that. It helped me along. It's Turnberry. Great memories here. This would have been a great memory.”
For me it already is a great memory.
For the first time in my life, I was witnessing a sporting event where the outcome had very little to do with the true measure of the greatness of the competition. Watson had failed to win, but it did not in any way diminish the greatness of his achievement at Turnberry.
The stoic Watson wore an expression of calm and peaceful concentration throughout the final round. An anemic start on the first few holes only seemed to buoy his concentration.
Like a Zen Buddha, his peaceful face never displayed so much as an inkling of fear or consternation, and his play embodied the burgeoning sense of belief that so obviously was growing within him.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but think that for a man of his age, his stroke production was utterly remarkable—almost miraculous. As he struck the ball and watched it sail through the majestic coastal air, or bump and run across the grass, his expression never wavered, whether the results were the desired ones or not.
More often than not, Watson did achieve his desired result. He was, more than any other player in the tournament, one with the course. The undulating hills of the links, the rugged and omnipresent coastline, the seaspray, the daunting rough and sunken bunkers—he seemed to understand them on a deeper level.
He had an intuitive sense of how his shots would react to the course he had conquered 32 years ago.
Turnberry, the sight of the infamous “duel in the sun,” in which Watson and Jack Nicklaus conducted their storied battle for the British Open Championship in 1977, proved to be more than just a magical trip down memory lane for Watson. Thirty-two years after the fact, he was back with a vengeance.
In the end, even though many will say that it wasn’t meant to be, I’ll always remember it for it for what it was. I’ll always remember the 2009 British Open as the year that Tom Watson reminded us that belief and desire can make you young again.
I don’t care if he won the tournament—now I know that playing to your potential is more important than playing to the leaderboard. Just be the best you can be, and let the rest take care of itself.
Winning isn’t everything, but belief is.