What could be better than watching the Masters Tournament in early April in Augusta, Georgia, with its idyllic setting of rolling hills, blooming azaleas and the coveted green jacket waiting the winner? What better way to take off the radar screen pictures of exhausted, disillusioned migrants than to watch the world’s top golfers shooting for the ultimate prize of having last year’s winner put on the new champion the only jacket money can’t buy?
Surely watching will bring relief from the dispiriting news dominating the airwaves. Surely there will be a joyous celebration we can share with the winner. Surely we will feel that the best player has won, that the fates have been just, that we can share with the victor the beauty of spring and the coronation of hope that Augusta presents yearly.
The first three days went according to schedule. Last year’s champion, Jordan Spieth, was comfortably atop the leader board. The stars were aligned in his favor. He is a most proper young man, sitting easily among the sport’s great heroes, the Palmers, Nicklaus’ and Players. There is nothing flashy about him or his game, just rock solid skill and determination. A two- time major winner at just 22 years of age, he was a star amateur and college player with no personal issues to detract from his popularity. There are no Tiger Woods’ story lines with this exemplary Texan.
Even on Sunday, the fateful last day of the tournament when nerves have been known to overwhelm the hardest veterans, Spieth was in control. After 63 holes of the 72-hole tournament, he was ahead by five strokes. With nine holes to go, he was set to become the first player in the 80 Masters to win back-to-back titles while having the lead after every round.
It all appeared preordained, a “slam dunk,” as Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Director George Tenet told President Bush about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in December 2002. The “slam dunk” went under water on the short but treacherous par 3 12th hole. First shot, clunk, in the water hazard. Second shot, clunk, in the water hazard. Third shot, straight into a sand trap. When the dust had cleared, Spieth had shot a most unprofessional quadruple bogey seven on the par 3, the highest score he had posted in 46 major tournament rounds.
Watching this was painful. Spieth did somewhat recover by shooting birdies (one under par) on two of the next three holes. He wound up tied for second place. But still, we felt embarrassed for him. A pre-tournament favorite, Spieth more than disappointed. For him, the 2016 Masters was a disaster, a fall from grace.
We tried to empathize with his situation based on disappointments we have had. When asked how he would try to deal with the memory of his poor finish, he replied: “Honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind.” What will he think about next year when he tees up on the 12th?
There have been famous gaffes in sports. Bill Buckner’s error in game six of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox comes instantly to mind. Tens of millions of people watching, an entire region of the United States ready to celebrate after waiting since 1918 for the ultimate triumph. At a crucial moment, first baseman Buckner lets a simple ground ball roll between his legs, the unpardonable, unforgettable mistake cruelly etched in the memories of all fans of the Red Sox Nation. The Sox lose the game, and the next day the Sox lost the Series. Speaking of frustration!
How do we watch others’ frustration? How do we deal with the pain of others? Do we stay tuned in as Spieth goes back and forth on the 12th? Would we fling our clubs and walk off the course in a similar situation? I admit that as a teenager I did throw my tennis rackets into a burning fireplace after a heartbreaking loss.
The fates can be so kind; they can also be so devastating. We like to hear stories with positive endings. We like to have satisfaction within our particular notions of justice. But sometimes it is hard to understand wherein lies the justice. We were prepared for Spieth’s triumph. We wanted the fates to be predictable, to give us a happy ending. We wanted relief from the daily miseries we watch and read about in the news.
Danny Willett was the surprise champion at this year’s Masters. Jordan Spieth graciously helped him put on the unique green jacket champions keep for one year. Viewers who expected Spieth to confirm his predominance were not only disappointed, they were reminded that not every story has a predictable, happy ending, and that sports are not always a refuge from our daily realities. Indeed, in only a few seconds or minutes, sports can be a perfect mirror of those very frustrating and painful realities.