I rarely get to watch sport these days, much as I enjoy it, but during the holidays I watched probably the best 90 minutes of sport I have ever seen. It was not football; it was, in fact, of all things, golf. The US Masters is the pinnacle of the game; the Champions League, the Superbowl, the World Cup all rolled in to 4 rounds of golf at Augusta National in America with the very best players on the planet. This is the tournament that every young player in the world wants to win more than any other: whenever knockabout Saturday amateur golfers stand over a five foot put on the green and dream of glory, it is always the US Masters that they are trying to win. All the greatest players have won there over the years, on a course which is fiendishly difficult to play, not least over its last 9 holes.
Last week, by the time the last nine holes out of 72 were being played, it became clear that the winner was going to be one of the last two players out on the course, Justin Rose from England and Sergio Garcia from Spain. Justin Rose had won the US Open before, but never the Masters; he was also the reigning Olympic Champion. Sergio Garcia was often described as the best ever golfer never to have won a major championship. In his youth, he had been seen as an heir to the great Seve Ballesteros, a fellow Spaniard and friend who had died of a brain tumour only 5 years ago, and whose 60th birthday it would have been on the final day of the Masters this year. This was Garcia’s 74th attempt to win a Major Championship and so disillusioned had he become only a few years ago that he had declared at the end of one Masters that he was never going to be good enough to win.
What made this final 9 holes so remarkable were two things. Firstly, the standard of golf was extraordinary. At the almost impossible 15th, Garcia, losing the match, struck a long second shot to a par five green, over a lake, which hit the flag before he sank his putt for a remarkable 3. So good was his play, that most did not even realise that Rose himself had shot a birdie 4. The next hole, the 16th, is seen as one of the great holes in golf, a par 3 over water with a heavily sloping green. Garcia hit an amazing tee shot to within about 10 feet of the hole; under huge pressure, Rose then did the same and sank his putt, whilst Garcia, pressure reversed, missed his. And this takes us to the second reason this was so remarkable: the way in which the game was played. After Rose played his wonderful tee shot, Garcia hi-fived him with a big smile on his face; it was an amazing show of support in a time of extraordinary pressure. And it carried on this way. When they got to the 18th hole, both men had a putt that could have won the whole championship. Rose missed his by a whisker; then Garcia had that five-foot putt that all amateurs dream of to win the Masters. Rose watched on in agony. Garcia missed it; but instead of falling to his knees in despair, he went straight over to Rose with a big smile on his face and gave him a huge hug and a pat on the back; again an incredible bit of sportsmanship. After the match, which Garcia won on a play-off hole, Garcia explained that though both of them had desperately wanted to win, neither of them had wanted the other one to lose. Rose explained, as he was entirely magnanimous in defeat, that they had been friends since they were 14 and that if he had to lose to anyone, it was Garcia. He was genuinely happy for him, even though now he may never win his own dream.
Great sportsmanship is the ultimate in altruism. Look it up if you do not know what altruism means. What you will find is something about thinking about others; and sportsmanship asks you to do this in times of greatest stress. When I used to run a boarding house at a school in Kent, we had something vaguely similar. Each year, sometimes around January, at other times around April, someone in the year group would start working really hard in the realisation that exams were just around the corner. The guy next door would realise that it was happening and, probably more out of competitiveness than altruism, would get his head down too, keen not to miss out on the success that his mate was aiming for. Within days, the whole year group would be at it – working away, supporting each other, keen to do well. The very best year groups, though, were the ones which were not only competitive, but which were genuinely delighted for each others’s success. The ones who, even if they had messed up a trial paper themselves, found time to say a genuine well done to someone who had done a personal best. These year groups did well as a whole group, and not simply as individuals.
Remarkably, after that final Masters round of golf, both players independently said that (even though the viewing galleries had been going wild on the biggest stage on their sport) they themselves had felt completely calm over the last few hours. I have a theory that was because, despite all the desire they personally had to win, they had also given time to the feelings of their opponent. I encourage this of you all in the coming weeks, whether on the pitch or in the classroom or in the exam hall. Be competitive, yes, please; but also be altruistic; think of others; win and lose gracefully in the knowledge that you have done your best.