A Little Humility Goes a Long Way

Justin Thomas sent the wrong message with his reaction after holing a par putt at the Ryder Cup 

By Michael Bamberger

I speak only for myself: As I get older, I find the quality I admire most in another person is humility and the quality I dislike most is arrogance. In sport, in war, in medicine, in friendship and marriage and politics, there’s always an opportunity to be humble, to show that not only do you not have the answer to everything, but you also have the answer to nothing. 

The great surfers understand this. The ocean always has the upper hand. You’re a guest. Act accordingly.

My frequent golf partner, David Morse, the veteran actor, is in a short and powerful scene in The Hurt Locker that (as I see it) is a spectacular study in humility with life-and-death consequences. David plays a U.S. Army colonel named Reed. He meets Jeremy Renner’s character, an Army sergeant with a specialty in detonating bombs named William James. James is young and lucky. Reed, older, vastly more experienced in life and war, has this exchange with him:

Colonel: You the guy in the flaming car, Sergeant James?

Will: Afternoon, sir. Uh, yes, sir.

Colonel: Well, that’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that? [He turns to others.] He’s a wild man. You know that? [He turns back to James.] I want to shake your hand.

I read the scene this way, Reed to James: Wake up, kid. You’ve just been lucky, you dumbass. 

In other words, a dose of humility might help you fly home alive.

The acting in the scene, by both men, is extraordinary. When I tried to compliment David on it, he said, “It was all there on the page.”

Humility is one of golf’s most important qualities. Humility is a form of manners. Manners are a form of humility. Jack Nicklaus, the gold standard of golf manners, got this from his own father: “If you lose, shake the other guy’s hand like you’re happy for him.” Yes, it’s a form of acting. But it’s also a way of putting the game and its tradition of courtly behavior ahead of your own selfish emotions.

Tiger Woods, in his own way, had it. He really did. He showed up other golfers with his play, but not his manners. He was wildly demonstrative in his prime, but it reflected what was deep within him. It wasn’t for spectators. It wasn’t a message to the guys he was trying to beat.

I’m not picking on Justin Thomas here, although I realize it will sound like I am. I’m not talking about his skill in golf. It’s extraordinary. I’m not saying I know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. I’m watching the Ryder Cup from the comfort of home. You see the big picture, watching on TV. You miss most of the subtle things.

But Thomas was lucky to make the U.S. team as a captain’s pick. His selection was not a no-brainer. His play this summer was poor. This 44th Ryder Cup, being played outside Rome, is a long way from PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., the main commercial drag for dozens of PGA Tour players, Thomas among them, looking for the Apple store or Nordstrom. He was a long way from home, playing for a team that has not won a road game in 30 years. Six tries, no wins, no ties.

The two-man team of Thomas and Jordan Spieth has been amazingly effective in Ryder Cup and President Cup play over the years, with a combined 7-1-0 record, as the U.S. charter flight touched down in Italy. Still, Zach Johnson, the U.S. captain, did not feel compelled to send them off in the Friday morning alternate shot session, which the Europeans swept.

In the afternoon better-ball session, the Thomas-Spieth team went off first, against Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton. On the 15th green, Thomas needed to make a six-foot par putt to keep the Americans 1 up in their match. He took his time over it. Totally his prerogative. He aim-pointed. He backed off the putt. I don’t know if it was swatting away a bug on a hot afternoon. Maybe there was a rude comment from a fan. Again, totally his prerogative.

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He holed the putt. A Friday afternoon putt on the road with his club way down.

He did a 180, faced the European crowd with his shoulders back like a boxer who had just delivered a knockout punch and exalted in the moment.

Maybe I’m reading way too much into it, but to me it came across as arrogant, as the act of a person who does not understand where he is and what the score is, literally and figuratively.

It matters greatly for all manner of reasons, one of which is this: Thomas, as steeped in the game as anyone, is going to hand this down to the next generation, just as Nicklaus did.

Thomas missed a six-foot birdie putt on 16, the Europeans won the hole and the match was even.

On the par-3 17th, Thomas hit a spectacular shot, the best of the group. He had a 12-footer for a birdie and a 1-up lead. It didn’t drop. The match was still tied.

On 18, he made a six-foot birdie putt to halve the match.

He and Spieth tied. That’s all they did.

It was a passing moment, on 15. But it was also way too much way too early.

The Americans are in an ocean, over there in dusty Rome. An ocean commands your respect, or it should. Every soul surfer will tell you that.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

4 thoughts on “A Little Humility Goes a Long Way”

  1. Left out of the article, during all of this where was Speith?

    Reading the scores today, I thought back to Alan Shipnuck’s comment a few years back that the US was poised to dominate the Ryder Cup for years to come. Even at the time this seemed almost comically wrong. The sides are fairly evenly matched according to the World Ranking, and the atmosphere at the matches has devolved to the level of WWF events. Home field advantage has become everything. It will be a long time before either side wins on the Atlantic shore opposite.

  2. Talk about egg on the face of the Captain and Spieth. Are we going to lead, Zach, or are we off to an inter-club with the buddies?

  3. Couldn’t agree more – I don’t think there’s any other player out there so lacking in humility, class and grace.
    Even today, how many times did he need to continue the hat tipping thing (all his other team mates decided that once would be enough).
    Still, he does seem to have his fans… I guess others in society share his ideals.

  4. He showed a total lack of self-awareness during the singles match. Lucky to be there in the first place and making it about him while the team is getting whipped. Classless.

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