Reading the sports news this morning, I had a sudden vision of my late, great friend John Gradon scrinching as if he had just shanked a drive off the first tee.
Word that Tiger Woods is back on top as the number one golfer in the world would definitely have made John scrinch his face as only he could when something unexpected and unacceptable and, well, ugly happened between tee and green.
When Tiger bottomed out at 58th place in the world standings, and was stuck in the muck of his own making, John emphatically declared him "finished" as a force in golf.
"He may come back a bit," John said. "But he'll never again be what he was."
Weekend duffers the world over may have made a similar assessment. In John's case, there was reason to take the prediction very seriously. In golf, there are hackers, there are inept fanatics (hi, mom!), there are very good amateur players (Peter Menzies, call the Cardus office for your messages), there are devoted students of the game, there are the pros, of course, and then there are people like John.
He didn't just live the game. It lived through him.
He didn't just keep an honest and decent scorecard. He delighted in learning the unique contours of any course he played. He didn't just study swing mechanics. He understood that golf, properly played, is as much an exercise in architecture and design as it is about driving and arriving at the cup.
He wrote a book about the golf courses that he particularly loved. In retirement, in the decade before his sudden and still inexplicable death from a heart attack at the beginning of March, he found heaven working as a golf course marshal.
Golf wasn't just a game to him. It was a critical part of the serious business of making our way in the world. And that's why he soured so seriously on Tiger.
Years ago, when we were in the midst of our annual forced march of golf lunacy that John christened the Tour de Farce—11 rounds in five days on different courses in Alberta, B.C and northern Montana—I was flailing madly as usual and indulging an extravagant fit of temper also, sadly, as usual.
John didn't give me a swing tip. He didn't give me any kind of golf tip. He just tipped his head to one side and said with a characteristic matter-of-fact finality: "You seem to love the game, but you don't seem to be enjoying it. It's fine to love the game, but to enjoy it you have to respect it. Otherwise, it's not worth playing. And I don't play with people who treat the game as if it's not worth playing."
He was not echoing Legend of Baggar Vance-Tin Cup-Greatest Game-Golf In the Kingdom-pseudo Zen-tap the spirit clichéd words of wisdom to help someone through a bad round. He was laying down his own unimpeachable principle of engagement. It was a principle that, I am sure, underlay his evaluation of Tiger at his very worst.
Tiger did a lot of terrible things. What he did to his family was unconscionable. What he has very likely done to his soul is unimaginable. But the unforgivable thing, in John's book, was that he let his love of the game become overwhelmed by monstrous love of himself. He used the game to put himself in position to besmirch everything else. It was the ultimate act of disrespect.
It's what finished Tiger for John. And it's what convinced him Tiger was finished, period.
Whenever John hit a poor shot, and especially if he ever shanked, he would scrinch and say quietly: "Oh, John, that was a sillllllyyyyy thing to do." I do not say that my friend was "sillllyyyyyy" to dismiss Tiger as he did when he did.
But, hindsight being 20-20, he was clearly mistaken. Tiger is again number one in the world. He is in the driver's seat to win the Master's in April. He is, if not his younger self, on fire.
I think the mistake John made with his prediction is one we all fall prey to even more frequently than I (used to) emit blasts of profanity on the golf course. It's that we, quite properly, place a premium on respect for the things we love in the world. In so doing, though, we forget the unimpeachable truth that while respect is crucial, there can be no true love without a constant opening to redemption.
Some of us call it Easter.