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Monday, April 11, 2016

Hard to watch and hard not to

Sportswriter Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer aptly described Jordan Spieth's meltdown at the Masters yesterday: "It was hard to watch. It was hard not to watch."

Don't we often feel that way? I'm not referring to schadenfreude, the German word we so often read these days because the English language has no concise, direct equivalent for enjoying someone else's misfortune. Yesterday was not schadenfreude because hardly anyone derived pleasure from seeing Spieth's game collapse like that — not even his opponents in Augusta. Nor do I believe that those of us who have played golf on occasion and found it to be so much more difficult than it looks on TV had thoughts of vindication and equality when Spieth put two consecutive balls into Rae's Creek.

I'm sure that psychologists have researched why we find disasters, whether natural or personal, so riveting. We rubber-neck at highway accidents. We repeatedly watch TV replays of crashes at Daytona. The dénouement of the golf movie Tin Cup hung on a meltdown. Golf is a particularly strong trigger for this aspect of our psychology because golf is usually an individual sport with a slow pace. I am reminded of the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. We saw it countless times, a solitary ski jumper crashing in spectacular fashion. Not only did we never tire of it, we brought "the agony of defeat" into our culture as a catchphrase. (The intro was astutely scripted by the multitalented Stanley Ralph Ross.) Fortunately the athlete in that infamous clip suffered only a mild concussion and recovered completely.

Spieth was not physically injured yesterday. He has two or three decades of competitive golf ahead of him; perhaps he will play so well in future tournaments that he avoids the stigma of choking. Many people know that Greg Norman blew a big lead on the final day of the Masters twenty years ago — with bogeys on 10 and 11, and a multiple bogey on 12, almost exactly like Spieth. Norman was near the end of his best playing years, and plagued by injuries he could never dispel the public's recollection of the event. On the other hand, almost no one knows that Arnold Palmer blew the Masters in 1961. He won it in 1962 and again in 1964.

Will Spieth recover to enjoy the "thrill of victory"? We must wait and see. I hope so. Public humiliation is fit punishment for crime, not a desirable or necessary part of sport.