The scene at the final hole at the Masters Golf Tournament—Ben Crenshaw weeping for joy, bent over, head in hands, while his caddy Carl Jackson comforts him.
In that image many of us noticed something almost lost, nearly extinct, in American manners—the gratitude of a pious man who loves his game. Among professional sports, golf is the last outpost for such a sensibility. Tennis had it, but lost it after condoning a generation of rude and spoiled behavior. Hockey players, who nowadays are so busy getting stitched up, probably never had it. Baseball players surely felt nostalgic when they watched Crenshaw win. Their ten months of shamelessness insures it will be a long time before they can recapture the honor of their game, if ever. Football and basketball players lost it years ago, drowned by their PR, along with the rock music that blaringly interprets their sport to the fans.
In that moment on the 18th green at Augusta National, we saw a man overcome by the joy of winning, a man paying honor to his sport, not a man consumed by his paycheck or his celebrity stature. Crenshaw didn’t walk off the green to record a TV spot for Disneyworld or Nike shoes. Instead he talked about his golfing mentor Harvey Penick, of Little Red Book fame. Just a few days before the tournament, Crenshaw had served as a pallbearer at his funeral. As he received the green jacket, the new Master’s champion credited Penick with helping him somehow throughout the final round— how rare a thing such piety has become!
Those who know Crenshaw and his love for the game and its tradition knew he was overwhelmed by his awareness of winning his second Masters, and taking his place in the history of golf. Manners like his require piety, reverence for the past, for tradition, for the accomplishments of one’s elders, for those who have made the institutions that nourish us today.
As the writer Marion Montgomery has put it, “Manners allow the soul to catch its breath.” Manners take over where self-conscious reflection and deliberation leave off. Golfers tee off in an order paying homage to the lowest scorer on the previous hole—this is rarely discussed, it simply happens. Perhaps this is why golf is so refreshing, it has not taken on the confusion of contemporary life, particularly its deep skepticism regarding privilege and honor.
An older friend of mine recently said, “Golf is the last sport where a young man can learn to be a gentlemen.” Remaining quiet and motionless while another player hits, tending to the pin for a partner’s putt, praising good shots, offering consolation for bad ones, lending good cheer to a round’s conclusion, regardless of scores, all are civilizing habits. They are hardly in evidence on our nation’s streets.
Golf remains the only major sport to resist the thug element infiltrating our public life. One reason is that you simply cannot play decent golf with bad manners—it gets in the way of the game. John Daly is the perfect example: when he gets his life together, and shortens his backswing, his amazing talents will fully emerge. Temper may help you make the downfield block but it won’t help you sink a short putt. Initially playing golf is about learning the proper swing; ultimately it is about learning self-command.
People wonder why public civility is on the wane, why so little respect is shown toward tradition, the greatness of the past. Some of us have accepted this as the price of becoming cynical, of exposing much of past glory as counterfeit, as camouflage for greedy self-interest and class injustice. No longer believing in the accomplishments of the adult world we now venerate the scowl of adolescent rebellion. Why should our nation’s youth try to grow up and overcome an attitude that the adult world, in large part, has chosen to emulate?
Just like in golf, bad manners get in the way of living well. To grow, to mature, requires great effort and much help—we are helped both by God’s grace and the efforts of good men and women who have come before us. The essence of rudeness is not listening, in not knowing when to be quiet and to profit from those who know better. Ben Crenshaw’s bowed head, Carl Jackson’s fatherly consolation, the acknowledgement that help comes from beyond the grave—here are clear signs that manners are not dead, that they can flourish once again.