Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2020

Winning, In All Its Glorious Complexity

Winning. As fans, this is what we hope to see our heroes achieve, this is the result we stand ready to cheer. We learn from an early age to exult when the outcome, be it of a game or a career, is victory. Winning is, as the hoary maxim most often incorrectly attributed to Vince Lombardi goes, not everything, but the only thing. And yet so very often the attributes that we most admire in the stars of all our games are seen most clearly not at a time of triumph, but during adversity. It is in the furnace of setbacks and trials that resilience and character are forged.

Tiger Woods made the short walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee at Augusta National last Sunday afternoon 2-over par for his round and more than a dozen strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. While a flame of hope had briefly flickered in the hearts of millions of fans when Woods opened the tournament with a 68, his best Thursday score ever at the Masters, it had since become obvious that the pandemic-delayed final major of the year was not going to produce a sixth green jacket for the greatest golfer of his generation.

But no one, certainly including Woods himself, could have anticipated what happened next on the shortest hole on the golf course. A tee shot, caught in the swirling winds of Amen Corner, landing short of the putting surface, and rolling back down the bank into Rae’s Creek. After the penalty, a second ball struck from the drop area with so much spin that it rolled several yards backwards on the green and down the slope, into the water. Another penalty stroke and then a fifth shot, predictably too hard and into the bunker behind the green, from which Woods was forced to swing from an especially awkward lie. That shot, his sixth, sailing across the green and into the water, adding yet another penalty. Finally, with his eight stroke on the hole, once more from the bunker, a ball left dry and puttable. Two putts to cover the remaining distance, and Woods had recorded a 10, his highest score on any hole in any tournament since turning pro in 1996.

It would be understandable for Woods to have been stunned by what had just unfolded. Certainly everyone watching the CBS Sports broadcast was in a state of slack-jawed shock. It’s also very possible that his fragile back was tweaked by the contortions of his stance in the sand trap. And no matter what happened over the remaining six holes, he was not going to finish anywhere near Johnson. Given all that, no one would have judged him badly had Woods simply knocked the ball around for six more holes, finishing as quickly as possible with whatever score resulted.

Instead, he striped a drive around the corner of the dogleg par-5 13th hole. From there an iron to the green set up a two-putt birdie. Then, after a routine par at the next, Woods hit another long drive down the hill on the 15th. His approach from the fairway finished just off the green at the par-5, and a chip to tap-in distance gave him another birdie. At the short 16th, which featured an unusual Sunday pin placement on the upper right shelf at the back of the green, Woods’s hit his tee shot to three feet. Yet another birdie, followed by one on 17 and one final emphatic under par score at the last. Five birdies in six holes, from a golfer who, more than anyone in the field, had absolutely nothing to prove and after a catastrophe that would have led many of his fellow competitors to, if not exactly quit, at the very least show little concern for their performance.

Two days prior to that demonstration of will, a long day’s drive south of Augusta National, the Miami Marlins announced a hiring that was at once groundbreaking, long overdue, and very much a product of will. After three decades in the Great Game, beginning with an internship for the Chicago White Sox, Kim Ng was named general manager of the team that surprised fans everywhere by making the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003. Ng (pronounced “Ang”) is the first Asian-American GM in MLB, and the first woman to serve in that role in any of the major North American men’s sports leagues.

To understand the transcendent power of her appointment, one needed only look at the social media posts of other women who work in baseball. From women who are coaches in the minor league system of various clubs, to scouts, front office personnel, and, perhaps because they tend to have an active social media presence, especially among women sportswriters, like Emma Baccellieri and Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated, Hannah Keyser of Yahoo Sports, and Molly Knight and Lindsay Adler of The Athletic, came a tidal wave of joy mixed with “pinch me so I know I’m not dreaming” incredulity.

That latter emotion was in ample supply because for Ng, the setbacks were not sudden and unexpected as with Woods at the Masters. Rather her trials were persistent and entrenched, playing out repeatedly over long years as she built an ever more impressive resume of accomplishment as a baseball executive. Ng turned the White Sox internship into a fulltime position in Chicago, eventually becoming assistant director of baseball operations. Then, after a stop in the American League’s headquarters, she worked with Brian Cashman as assistant general manager of the Yankees. Next it was across the country to L.A., initially to oversee scouting for the Dodgers before eventually expanding her duties. While in Los Angeles she worked closely with Joe Torre when he served as the team’s manager, and when he moved on to MLB’s front office he wasted no time in recruiting Ng back to New York, where for the last decade she has been senior vice president of baseball operations.

With all that experience it was only natural that Ng would be interviewed for general manager positions, and she was – repeatedly. But every time she went through the recruitment process, it ended not with opportunity, but disappointment. And, of course, every time Ng was passed over, the chosen candidate was a man. It would have been easy to become bitter, or defeated, or resigned. Instead Ng kept enhancing her experience and seeking her chance. Finally it was Marlins’ chief executive Derek Jeter, who first knew Ng when he was a young shortstop emerging as a superstar in the Bronx, who saw Ng not as the most talented woman, but simply as the best person to lead his team’s front office. When the news of her hiring broke several of her former bosses called Ng the most qualified person ever to become a first-time GM.

Winning. If the definition is limited to the story told by numbers on a scoreboard or words in a press release, then the easy conclusion is that Tiger Woods lost at the Masters, and Kim Ng won a new job. But dedicated fans know that the full story is rarely so simple. As these two champions of two vastly different sports demonstrated this week, the most personal victories aren’t always reflected in the final score, and the most meaningful triumphs seldom come easily.


Responses

  1. Might be your best piece ever. Thanks!Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


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