What is it about second place that prompts so many of us to label it "losing?" Perhaps it helps us feel better about ourselves?
Did Tom Watson lose the British Open? He did indeed miss a putt on the 18th green at Turnberry that would have won him the Claret Jug, sending him instead into a playoff with Stewart Cink for which Watson, at age 59, had nothing left in the tank. But did Watson lose?
The answer depends on where you are from, how you view competitive sports, and maybe how you see the world. Many, especially Americans, tend to view the world as divided between winners and losers, with, of course, a substantial majority in the latter category. No one wants to be a loser. So I ask again: is Tom Watson a loser? If so, what did he lose?
Watson galvanized the sporting world for a weekend in July by leading the British Open for the first three rounds. As he himself described it after his third round, "The first day here, yeah, 'Let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, [shoot] 65.' The second day you said, 'Well, that's okay, that's okay.' And then now today [Saturday] you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.'"
By the time the final round began on Sunday, more than just the golfing world was watching. In a manner similar to how Dara Torres amazed the swimming world by winning three Olympic medals (interestingly, silver) at age 41, Watson was redefining what was possible for a 59-year-old athlete to achieve. To have won a major professional golf tournament at that age would not only have rewritten the record books; it would have rebooted most people's understanding of what a near-pensioner can do.
"It would have been a great story," is the quote heard most often in the aftermath of the 2009 British Open. Watson missed that crucial putt, which for most people put a sad ending on what would have been a great story—one for the ages. I believe it not only would have been, but is a great story—the story of a 59-year-old golfer who had been playing reasonably well on the Senior Tour leading one of golf's greatest tournaments for three rounds before finishing . . . second.
Ah, there's the rub: Watson was the runner-up. Which, translated to American, means "the loser." For myself, I find joy rather than shame in Watson's finish. A 59-year-old golfer finished second in the British Open. He took home a paycheck of nearly 750,000 U.S. dollars, too, by the way. Where's the loser in that?
Perhaps it was the way Watson finished that makes people want to hang the label on him. If Watson had stayed close to the front of the pack for three rounds and finished second, they'd probably be holding a parade for him in Kansas City, his hometown (and mine). But because he fell back after leading the field for all but the last moment of four grueling days, we characterize it as a loss.
I imagine Watson does, too. He's a competitive sort, and no one wanted that last putt to go in more than Tom Watson did. But he suffered his defeat with dignity, not with excuses. That alone should qualify him as a winner in a society that is always looking for someone else to blame. Watson never blamed anyone, even Cink, for his finish at the Open.
So what is it about second place that prompts so many to label it "losing?" Certainly, in a game of checkers, finishing second is losing. But in a lot of events—the British Open being an especially prominent one—second place is a long way from losing. Tiger Woods missed the cut and went home from the same tournament Watson nearly won. In my view, that would come much closer to losing than did Tom Watson's accomplishment.
My own athletic career in track and field is a study in mediocrity, but well I remember finishing fourth in the high jump at what was called the City Meet—the championships of the Kansas City, Missouri school district. For a chronic underachiever, this sub-bronze medal had all the shine and heft of Olympic gold. Even winning the event the following year was not as sweet as receiving my first medal. Given the low expectations that surrounded me, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that in finishing fourth I had "lost" the event.
I suggest that the haste with which we reach for the "loser" label is rooted in contempt for our fellow persons. As much as we enjoy stories of heroes who overcome adversity to win, we equally (or more) enjoy stories of failure, of defeat, of coming up short, which allow us to call the protagonists of those stories losers. Except when it concerns our favorite team, we love a story of a good choke. It helps us feel better about ourselves in about the same way that watching someone fall down the stairs makes us feel graceful. This kind of schadenfreude, in my view, is not a component of human flourishing; it is its opposite.
This discussion is not about to resort to elementary school platitudes about how "everyone who competes is a winner." Sports require at least half the teams who compete not to win. Sixty-four of the sixty-five teams in the popular NCAA basketball tournament end their season with a loss. So no, not everyone who competes is a winner, though they are a clear step above those "cold and timid souls" who don't compete at all. That's not my point.
But while he may not have won the British Open, Tom Watson didn't lose it, either. He is a 59-year-old professional golfer, unarguably past his prime, who, for one glorious weekend in 2009, turned the clock back to 1987 in an astonishing way, one that brings tears to the eyes of golf fans old enough to remember Watson at the top of his game.
My point is that Tom Watson did not lose the British Open. After an amazing display of golfing skill that fell one agonizing stroke short, Tom Watson finished second. Good for him. And bad for any one of us who dares to call him a loser.