IMPORTANT NOTE: I made a significant mistake in the original post, suggesting that Byron Nelson had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, instead of what he actually had been awarded, the Congressional Gold Medal. These are very distinct awards - given for very distinct reasons. It was a mistake in drafting - I knew it was the Congressional Gold Medal (and worked in the Senate when he was awarded it), but wrote the wrong thing. My apologies.
On Wednesday every year at the Masters, the spectators are treated to the Par 3 Tournament in which a mix of current players, past champions, friends and family are able to compete. This year, just as the last two, the "Big Three" as we golf fans refer to them - Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player - played together again, reminding us of their greatness on and off the course.
As Mr. Palmer turns 80 this year, we may not get to see this for many more years - so when "Arnie" drained a 50 foot downhill fast putt with a lot of break to birdie the last hole, the crowd erupted, he gave a little smile and a fist pump, and all was as it once was. Then, yesterday, 60 year-old Tom Watson took us down memory lane when he reprised his 8 major championships, and last year's run at the Open Championship at 59 years-old, by hitting the front page of the leaderboard once again with a 5 under par 67.
These masterful men - and others like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson to name a few - are revered in a way totally unlike today's players. Why? On-course heroics? Of course - Ben Hogan's 3 Majors in 1953 remains one of the most magical years in golf. Arnie's Army. Jack's 6 Green Jackets and 18 Majors. Gary Player's many wins and longevity. Byron Nelson's record 11 consecutive wins, a record that stands today. Bobby Jones' legacy as an amateur, never turning professional.
But there was far more to these men - and we needn't look farther than, for the most part, their lifelong devotion to their wives to understand just a little of why they were, and are, great.
In today's world - where too often the athlete is focused on self over family and stardom over family - it was the off-course demeanor and actions of these particular men... and their style and grace that creates a mystique unparalleled today, and one that will leave us somewhat empty when they are no longer with us. Arnold Palmer is renown for taking the time to sign every autograph asked of him, Jack is known for flying home from tournaments to make events for his kids, Gary for his volunteerism and work in his home country of South Africa, and Byron Nelson and Bobby Jones for being true gentlemen, with Mr. Nelson being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his off-course charitable works and grace as a human being.
And perhaps no greater story exists than Ben Hogan's triumphant return from a near fatal car accident - from which he was not supposed to survive, and not supposed to walk and certainly not supposed to play golf again. Mr. Hogan, for those who don't know, threw himself across the seat in front of his wife, Valerie as a bus crossed a line to hit them head-on. That is what makes these men who they are.
They are men who stayed with their wives. Consider:
Arnold Palmer - 45 years married to his beloved Winnie before she passed away in 1999;
Jack Nicklaus - 50 years married (this year) to Barbara, whom he met at Ohio State;
Gary Player - 53 years to Vivienne, whom he begain dating as a teenager;
Byron Nelson - 50 years to his first wife, Louise, who passed away in 1985, and then almost 20 years to his second wife Peggy, before Mr. Nelson passed away in 2006;
Ben Hogan - 62 years to his beloved Valerie before he passed away in 1997;
Bobby Jones - 47 years to Mary, before he passed away in 1971.
Tom Watson - 25 years married to his high school sweetheart - whom he defended against anti-Jewish bigotry, and while they ultimately did divorce, has been married for 11 years to his current wife.
Having said all this, all eyes are on Tiger Woods this week as he makes his return to golf in after a much publicized break following revelations of his notorious transgressions several months ago. Appropriately, the Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, Billy Payne, took Tiger to task yesterday - saying about him:
A man who in a brief 13 years clearly and emphatically proclaimed and proved his game to be worthy of the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer... But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.
Mr. Payne summed up by saying:
I hope [Woods] can come to understand that life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people. We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past.
As the previous generation of greats heads out into the sunset - we truly can hope and pray that the next generation will take up the mantle, and give us something more to root for than the fleeting moments on the course.
But for now, we can continue to look up to Arnie, Jack, Gary and the others still giving us some last moments to cheer for.