News & Opinion

Pro golf’s nice guys don’t finish last

Barry Bonds had a huge influence on my becoming a golf writer. Seriously. If not for Bonds’ rudeness, petulance and better-than-you attitude toward anyone who didn’t smooch his royal backside, I might still be covering baseball for a living.

Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, Roger Clemens, Bobby Bonilla…. Something about our so-called national pastime seemed to breed a sense of entitlement and warped sensitivity among many of the game’s biggest stars in the early 1990s. Perhaps it had to do with spending hours on end in dugouts and clubhouses, where grown men are encouraged to act like teenage boys.

Pro golf is very different. When I was offered a job to work for a national magazine in 1995 and promoted to cover the PGA Tour a year later, I encountered a strange, new world. Civil human beings, many of them polite and accommodating. Guys who had to perform to get paid, who respected not only their fellow competitors, but everyone in the game’s traveling community.

It’s true. Golf builds character, and character makes the world a better place. In alphabetical order, here’s my list of the nicest tour pros on earth, which is far shorter than it should be.

Joe Durant – One of the best ball-strikers anywhere in his day, and one of the kindest souls ever to pick up a club. Insidetheropes.com founder/CEO Tom Auclair and his son T.J. made dinner plans with Durant one year at the old Kemper Open, but an afternoon rain delay screwed up everything. Durant had finished his round and Auclair, who couldn’t leave the course until play was completed, had his hands full with work and no time to get in touch with Durant.

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In keeping with his nickname, Ernie Els takes it easy on just about everybody whom he meets.

It was after dark when Auclair and his boy hopped into the car and sped off to the restaurant. They arrived 2½ hours late to find Durant sitting by himself at a table in the rear of the dining room. “The thing I’ll never forget was his response,” Auclair said. “Joe’s like, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. You’ve got a job to do, too.’ I didn’t think those guys even cared about what we did.”

Ernie Els – Upon winning the 2002 British Open, the Claret Jug had barely landed in Els’ arms before the R&A whisked him off for the usual procession of “obligations” with tournament sponsors and various VIPs. Maybe 15 minutes into this dog-and-pony affair, Els spotted a group of writers waiting patiently for their turn with him, at which point the champagne toast with Sir Angus and all the elite folk would have to wait.

The Big Easy told the R&A to hold their horses, then led five or six of us to the locker room, where he gave us all the time we needed, and then some. After losing at the buzzer to Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Masters, Els almost tore my head off as he walked away from the 18th green, thinking I wanted to talk to him. His apology a half-hour later, although entirely unnecessary, was fitting. More than a great player, Els is simply a great man.

Rickie Fowler – There’s a reason he does national television commercials and gets business opportunities that more successful players don’t. Fowler is unfailingly courteous, looks you in the eye and handles the negativity attached to his career like a man. Living proof that not every prodigy who rolls off the AJGA assembly line is spoiled by the pursuit of fortune and fame.

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If Charles Howell III has been cursed with outsized expectations as a pro, but you won't hear him curse his fate.

Charles Howell III – Talk about guys whom you’d want your daughter to marry. The next four-letter word Howell mutters will be his first. Burdened by immense expectations after turning pro in 2000, CH3 has maintained a rare combination of Southern-boy charm and salt-of-the-earth sensibility. My wife, who handled his golf wardrobe for three years, cannot say enough good things about him. And as you probably couldn’t guess, my wife is not easy to impress.

Davis Love III – We spent a long day together at his home in Sea Island back in 2004, from which I wrote that Love was such a kindhearted person that he lacked the killer instinct and cold-blooded nature that might make him a more prolific winner. When asked about the story a few weeks later during his pre-tournament press conference at the Masters, Love endorsed the article, saying it was fair and accurate. You needn’t be an investigative reporter to experience the goodness in this man.

Kenny Perry – My visit to Perry’s Country Creek Golf Course in Franklin, Ky., remains one of the most memorable trips I’ve made. A completely unpretentious, homely little place, Country Creek is much like its owner: easy to love, hard to leave. When I wrote that Perry should feel obligated to play in the British Open, which he skipped a couple of times at the height of his career, he told Tim Rosaforte, a colleague of mine, that he was mad at me.

When I hustled off to the first FedEx Cup event later that summer to explain my position, Perry greeted me on the range like the big old teddy bear he’s always been. Angry? Maybe for 45 seconds. He’s as real as real people get.

Adam Scott – A true gentleman who wins with grace and loses with absolute class. Scott doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, which makes him like Love in that he probably could have accomplished more if he had a remorseless competitive psyche, but it’s not as if he’s been a bust, either. A handsome guy with impeccable manners, the most beautiful swing in golf and a heart the size of a South Pacific island. What’s not to like?

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com