It’s hardly the way of the modern superstar athlete, but the recent Masters champion takes the game’s ups and downs in stride
As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice In Wonderland, “What a strange world we live in … said Alice to the Queen of Hearts.”
We live in a world in which up is down, and down is up. The sports world is especially like that. Not long ago, the baseball playoffs concluded. In its late stages, the competition included some of the most demonstrative, self-glorifying players in the major leagues, many of them on the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves. But really, it’s unfair to single out teams or players, because the game is saturated with staring, posing and ostentatious displays.
The only sport that might top it for overbearing behavior – and we’re talking a big might – is football, which morphed into a chest-pounding, look at me “Gong Show” some time back. Likewise, basketball was among early pioneers of sports pomposity and more recently, even hockey has begun embracing celebrations.
Look, sports need a dose of personality and color; I’m not saying otherwise. But there is a time and place for everything. The time isn’t “always,” the place isn’t “everywhere” and the dose isn’t enough to drop a charging African elephant at 100 yards. If Lou Gehrig could be humble, so can Marcell Ozuna. If Roger Staubach could be dignified, so can DeSean Jackson.
Oh, but to be critical of any of it is to be shouted down by the “fun” and “passion” police. If you do not enjoy the Bugs Bunny “Ain’t I a stinker?” routines, you must be …
a.) extremely old
b.) eating crab cakes
c.) buying cheap toilet paper
To suggest that the best things sports used to demand from competitors had to do with humility and honor, to contend that poise and respect were challenging and admirable elements, is now to insist the earth is square, good help is easy to find and a bird in the hand doesn’t mean squat.
No, no. Those who admire the nobility of champions such as Stan Musial, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joe Louis or Jack Nicklaus must get a grip, and look forward to the day when Beth Harmon puts her opponent in checkmate by spiking the rook, smirking at her victim and moon-dancing on the table.
Into this environment walks 36-year-old Dustin Johnson, striding with that semi-John Wayne swagger. He doesn’t spike things, doesn’t chest-bump or do much fist-pumping. He doesn’t throw things or let out primal screams. He’s not intent on drawing attention to himself, making mountains from molehills or hitting people over the head with his persona.
You might even say, he acts like … wait for it … he’s been here before.
On Sunday, Johnson became the Masters champion, or should we say, the Bizarro World Masters champion. Our treasured spring major was more of a stripped-down fall phenomenon, missing much of its foliage and fanfare. Fortunately, for those used to playing “Crumbling Cart Path” and “Common Ragweed,” television commentators still insisted on referring to holes by their Augusta National confirmation names, such as “Tea Olive” and “Flowering Peach.”
We would have been lost otherwise.
And with the Emerald Kingdom missing a lot of its volume, Johnson’s victory seemed especially appropriate – that is, composed, collected and understated. In fact, when his younger brother/caddie Austin started tearing up on the 18th green, Dustin implored him to keep it together, lest he do the same.
It wasn’t until later, during the ceremonial interview, that “D.J.” gave in to the tears while still trying his best to hold back. Under the circumstances, it meant that much more. This Masters was pure, and so were his emotions.
Johnson takes a lot of darts for his demeanor. His intelligence gets questioned, and his absence of “passion” gets persecuted. He conducts himself in a way that is nearly polar opposite to what we’re used to seeing in 2020. If sport is a medicine cabinet stocked with stimulants, he is the placebo.
He also is an amazing player. He leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, at a tick under 67, and set the Masters scoring record with his 20-under 268 at Augusta National. In his past four starts, he has made more than $18 million and captured two of golf’s biggest events: the FedEx Cup and the Masters. He now has two majors, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how many more he might get. He has been in the neighborhood often.
What’s more, he is not totally devoid of color. He is engaged to Paulina Gretzky, who, shall we say, exudes vitality and pageantry. Paulina embraced her man on the 18th green Sunday in what looked like a marching-band outfit … but it looked good on her.
That said, regardless of how many majors he wins, Dustin Johnson isn’t going to change his demeanor. He chooses to do things this way, the way they used to be done, before the most important letters in the biggest moments became “m” and “e.” He does something that seems completely out of place in this “strange world we live in”: he lets his actions speak louder than words or antics.
Maybe he should be celebrated for that. Maybe we could use a little more of that. Maybe the world doesn’t have to be so strange.
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