Spaniard previously cast as a sore loser finally won a major after he made peace with defeat – and his victory shed light on the inherent futility of gamesmanship
It’s one of the quirks of the English language that, if you didn’t know any better, you could imagine that the words sportsmanship and gamesmanship were synonyms. But, of course, they mean almost the complete opposite. Gamesmanship is the art of winning by underhand or devious means. It places victory above any code of gracious behaviour.
Whereas sportsmanship entails an attitude that transcends winning and losing and instead places an emphasis on mutual respect and appreciation. In the pursuit of glory it refuses to compromise with the principles of fair play and a magnanimous spirit.
Both outlooks exist in sport, often on the same pitch, court or course at the same time. But like ships in the night, sportsmanship and gamesmanship can pass each other without realising.
That said, some sports affect to place a higher premium on sportsmanship than others. Or to put it another way, some sports see themselves as possessing greater integrity than others. Chief among these is golf. Say what you like about golf, but it can never be accused of underselling its sporting rectitude.
One of the most revealing moments in the excellent Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America documentary is when Simpson’s wealthy white friends first become suspicious of him, having witnessed his tendency to move his golf ball to a more favourable lie. It just isn’t done. Except when it is. The American golfer Lexi Thompson was recently given a four-stroke penalty while leading at the ANA Inspiration tournament. An eagle-eyed TV viewer called in to complain that Thompson had placed her golf ball, after marking it, about half a centimetre from its original place on the 17th green. After the penalty, she went on to lose.
It was an accident, everyone said, and TV viewers should butt out and stick to shouting in a futile manner at an unlistening screen. But it left a sour taste and golf’s unimpeachable image suddenly looked a bit more like that of other sports: complicated.
So it did the game no harm to have the Masters final round fought between Sergio García – a man who has not always been associated with sporting equanimity – and Justin Rose in a fiercely competitive but mutually respectful manner. Both men desperately wanted to win, but not so much that they wanted to crush their opponent.
Instead the lead swung back and forth as the two Ryder Cup colleagues took the drama to the final green and beyond. To lose out on a coveted major, as Rose did, on the first extra hole must have been very tough to take. But take it he did in the most considerate style, pointing out that if he couldn’t win it, then he was happy that García did.
It put me in mind of Roger Federer’s victory speech after the final of the Australian Open at the beginning of this year, in which he said he would have been happy if his opponent that day, Rafa Nadal, had won. Naturally it’s easier to be generous in victory than defeat, but he seemed to mean it, and the pair’s epic rivalry has been characterised by a mutual appreciation bordering on fraternal love.
But is that because tennis is a more sporting sport than – to pick another at random – football, with its divers and Hands of God and “professional” tackles? All those false injury breaks and convenient lavatory breaks, when losing, suggest otherwise. Jimmy Connors used to blank opponents before a match to unsettle them, and then often swear at them on court. Nick Kyrgios told Stan Wawrinka during a match that another player had “banged” the Swiss No2’s girlfriend.
Despite the genteel – and misleading – image earned from suburban clubs, there is nothing inherent in tennis, then, that makes competitors play the game in a benevolent spirit. Instead it’s a combination of essentially decent individuals and finely balanced competition that has brought out the amazing camaraderie that currently seems to exist at the very top of the sport.
Indeed there is no sport that makes players sporting. Look at cricket, which is supposed to represent the very essence of fair play. The game that gave us the phrase “it’s not cricket” to denote any kind of suspect practice is hardly a tale of unbroken honesty and courtesy. Ball tampering, match‑fixing, sledging, slow over rates and Trevor Chappell’s notorious underarm bowling have all served to expose that particular ideal as a work of magical realism. Even cricket, it turns out, is not cricket.
Yet within the most intense of cricketing battles there are still instances of outstanding, not to say inspirational, sportsmanship. If you wanted to capture an image of how sport should be contested then there is no more powerful contender than that moment in the 2005 Ashes series when Andrew Flintoff bent down and offered a consoling hand to Australia’s Brett Lee. Australia had just been bowled out within three runs of victory, and Lee was visibly sunk by the result, down on his haunches. The England players were jumping around in delight, but not Flintoff. “I was taught as a kid,” Flintoff later explained, “always respect the opposition first and celebrate after.”
The reason that wonderful scene and Flintoff’s thoughtfulness tugs at the emotions is because it reminds us of what sport should, but very often doesn’t, teach us: namely empathy. No one wins all the time and therefore we all know what it feels like to lose. Given that inescapable fact, perhaps the first rule of sportsmanship is to afford defeat the same respect as victory.
García, the supremely gifted prodigy who promised so much at a young age, had never won a major before last week. He had come close on several occasions but his fear of losing ensured that he did. And at 37, he was probably not going to get a better opportunity than the one he found himself with on the last day of the Masters. He was two strokes up and playing beautifully.
Then suddenly he was one stroke down and once again re‑establishing his claim for the title of the finest player never to have won a major. He could have started his familiar antics at that stage, snapping at his caddie, grumbling at the crowd, chucking clubs, remonstrating with the heavens, demonstrating that he was, as Padraig Harrington has said, “a very sore loser”.
But instead he accepted the possibility of defeat, made his peace with it, and realised life would go happily on if his Ryder Cup mate Rose emerged the winner. Suddenly the lavishly talented man who wilted against the iron character of Tiger Woods, and twice cracked as the grittier Harrington snatched major victories from his grasp, looked comfortable with – even happy for – his opponent. And finally García won.
Gamesmanship stems from a desire to avoid defeat at any cost. The secret of sportsmanship is that learning how to lose can also teach you how to win.