Dusty Nix

Competitiveness with grace – God help us

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The final round at the Masters was one of the most exciting sports finishes I’ve ever watched. Two fierce competitors, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, turned the back nine into a two-player shootout, one that Garcia ultimately won on the first playoff hole after the two finished 72 holes dead even.

What made their one-on-one showdown especially gratifying for me — and, I think, for most people watching it either from the pinestraw at Augusta National or on TV screens around the world — was the way these two friends applauded each other.

Anyway, that’s how I saw it. At least one observer had a completely different take. A “First Take” take.

Stephen A. Smith, familiar sports talking head on the ESPN program of the above name, thought Rose’s and Garcia’s conduct was disgraceful. I just caught a snippet on the screen, but here’s a partial transcript of what Smith said:

"First of all, golf disgusts me sometimes … I damn near told them to get a room. It was ridiculous, how they were with one another … I want to see you rooting for the other to fail because you want to win ... We want to get the impression that losing hurts you."

What an utter ass.

There’s so much wrong with all of that, you don’t even know where to start. But let’s start with the warped idea that any kind of basic class or graciousness in defeat, or in the heat of competition, signals a lack of intensity to win, or that losing doesn’t hurt.

Maybe Smith didn’t see Dan Quinn face the press after the most crushing Super Bowl loss in NFL history, or watch Falcons players congratulating the victorious Patriots. Guess that one didn’t really hurt after all. The flight back to Atlanta must have been an airborne party yacht.

But an even more perverse absurdity is the implication that bad sportsmanship is not the problem, but good sportsmanship. In that sense, Smith is the perfect emblem for the ESPN ethos (at least since the network dumped snark czar Colin Cowherd): Talent and work ethic and winning aren’t enough — you gotta have attitude.

That, in the Gospel According to ESPN, is what makes sports “fun.” (I marvel at how American sports somehow managed to survive for more than 200 years before Marc “Sack Dance” Gastineau and Terrell “Sharpie Sock” Owens and the rest of the me-me-me circus came along and made it fun.)

Maybe Sergio should have flipped his putter, a la Yasiel Puig after a home run swing, when he eagled 15. Maybe Justin should have strutted around the green and beaten his chest after his birdie that took the lead a couple of holes later. Maybe before the playoff, Garcia and Rose should have had one of those laughably stupid nose-to-nose glaredowns like boxers at a weigh-in.

Frank Chance, first baseman-manager of the early 1900s Cubs and back end of the famed Tinker-Evers-Chance double play triangle, fined his players for shaking hands with a member of the opposing team. Maybe golf needs a rule like that. (Most golfers wear soft cleats now, so spiking opponents bloody, like Ty Cobb, is no longer an option.)

Look … I know this class vs. crass thing in sports isn’t an either/or proposition, and none of it is anything new.

Besides, after that hose job against Lexi Thompson in the ANA tournament — fined two strokes for an inadvertent one-inch ball placement error, then another two strokes the next day because she had signed an “incorrect” scorecard a day before being assessed the penalty that made it incorrect — I agree with Mike Lupica of ESPN: Golf needs to lighten up and get over itself.

But that’s just it — that’s exactly what Rose and Garcia were doing. They were having fun. The fans were having fun. I was having fun. If I’d known then how much it was steaming Stephen A, it would have been even more fun.

Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; dnix@ledger-enquirer.com.

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