Every sport needs a god. Tiger Woods is back and golf is almost good again.
You’ve heard of Tiger Woods, who despite his scandalous meltdown years ago continued to be one of the most exciting golfers in the game. An elegant and powerful athlete, Woods lived by the words: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Intense, obsessed and motivated to win at all costs, Tiger Woods refers to the golfer who comes second in a tournament as a “first loser.” Really? By extension then, every Olympic podium would feature the gold standard winner flanked by tarnished silver and rusted bronze.
You might not have heard of Jim Nelford who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and had a stellar amateur career. Considered one of the best ball strikers in the game, he had the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, California tournament all but locked up and in his bag with one hole to go. With the clubhouse lead, he watched Hale Irwin, the only golfer on the course who could beat him, dump his drive on the 18th hole into the seaside rocks below the fairway. For Nelford, Irwin’s suddenly disastrous predicament was the moment in which the brain switches from anxiety to relief to “who do I need to thank.”
But wait! Irwin’s errant drive did in fact hit the rocks along the shore of the Pacific Ocean and then … and then, defying logic, luck and the naked eye … it bounced back onto the fairway. Blessings aplenty, Irwin then nailed the flag stick leaving his ball five feet from the cup. Many who witnessed those shots believed it proved once and for all that God really is American. Somehow, Hale Irwin had manufactured a birdie on the 18th forcing a sudden-death playoff in which he defeated the still-stunned Jim Nelford.
Watching his greatest personal triumph disappear in a fraction of a second, Nelford was utterly devastated and broke down in front of reporters at the airport. For Jim Nelford, it seemed things could not possibly get any worse. But wait! A year and a half later a water skiing accident nearly killed him and left his right arm severely damaged after being sliced by the blade of a propeller. Doctors concluded he would never swing a club again.
Cut down in his prime, did Nelford look upon the debacle at Pebble Beach as a curse in some sort of career-ending conspiracy? No, but many of us would. Instead, he went through prolonged and painful rehabilitation until he finally made it back to the top of the game. With his arm bolstered by pins and screws, covered with scars and skin grafts, the man slowly and painfully earned his way back onto the PGA Tour. He would never win a PGA tournament; that twenty-yard ridiculous bounce up and off the rocks at Pebble Beach ended his best shot at a major title.
Still, during a highly successful career he won the Canadian Amateur Championship twice. He once beat the great Jack Nicklaus in an exhibition match. With Dan Halldorson he won the World Cup of Golf in 1980 in Bogotá, Columbia. Still a player, a teacher and a devotee of the game, Nelford displayed his passion for the game as a TSN golf analyst. In 1992 the Golf Writers Association of America gave Jim Nelford the Ben Hogan Award for staying active in the game after such a devastating injury. Haunted by nightmares of careening golf balls and crashing boats … this guy is definitely not.
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Glen Abbey Golf Club near Toronto in 2013, Nelford talked about the love he has always had for the game of golf as well as the rewarding career it gave him. He also challenged Tiger Woods to a one-on-one match of words.
“I don’t agree with Tiger Woods,” he said. “Second place isn’t first loser – it’s the silver medal, and there’s a bronze medal and then there’s participants. In this era we put so much emphasis on winning, winning, winning, and everybody that doesn’t win is a loser. That’s a horrible thing to tell our kids. No, you’re competing. You’re doing the best you can. It’s a long journey, and enjoy that. You’re a winner because you’re out there doing it.”
Arrogant winners put themselves above the game and then out of it with a loss they often cannot handle. The Nelfords, the plodders, the stayers and the slow-but-sure rung climbers reap riches from their sports because they worship the game itself and not necessarily their place within it.
Displaying great modesty, Nelford continued: “Embracing the journey is more important than the details of the destination, even when you happen to arrive at a hall of fame.” Golf has shaped Jim Nelford’s life but it’s his good-natured and relentless competitive spirit that defines who he is: a hall of fame golfer and a very happy man. Who would you like to instruct and mentor your kids in golf or even in the greater game of life? Tiger Woods or Jim Nelford?
Recently I wrote a book about a racehorse named Zippy Chippy who lost 100 races in a row but ran clean, tried his damnedest and never quit. Today Zippy is the star of a retirement farm where his celebrity brings in a lot of money in namesake souvenirs. Today Zippy Chippy is making enough money to support 22 other thoroughbreds on the farm and they did win races!!! Since Zippy arrived, Old Friends Farm has changed their motto to: “You don’t have to come first to be a winner.”
In life it’s not about the trophy folks, it’s all about the trying. Pass that on to the kids.
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