Long Beach golfer demonstrates true character
Jamie Gracie, a 17-year-old high school senior in Long Beach, Calif., was just a putt or two from winning her league golf championship last week. But when she reached the green on the final hole, carrying a two-stroke lead, she noticed something peculiar about the ball.
It was not hers.
It was the same color as those of her teammates, but the ball she had just struck from the fairway did not belong to her. Nobody else would have noticed – not any coaches, not her opponents and likely not any of her teammates. But in golf, this is a no-no.
So Gracie was presented with a choice: Alert her coach of the mistake, notify the course marshal, take the requisite two-shot penalty and go back to her ball to play the next shot, compromising the trophy she thought was already hers.
Or just keep quiet and carry on.
One of the beauties of sports is the decisions athletes are continually required to make – be they as compelling as Dennis Eckersley choosing to throw a 3-2 backdoor slider to Kirk Gibson, or something more profound.
As John Wooden astutely noted, sports do not build character. They reveal it.
These days, they have been quite revealing, as in the case of Lance Armstrong, whose empire of inspiration and good deeds was built on the foundation of a big lie – that he did so naturally, without needing performance-enhancing drugs.
Then there was news this week that the NFL, in its latest investigation of organizational malfeasance, is examining whether the San Diego Chargers provided a gooey substance – long since outlawed – that might help players hang onto footballs.
These decisions, of course, carry different weight. Armstrong’s was, if we are to believe the testimony of more than two dozen witnesses and collaborators, an elaborately constructed fraud that was vigorously defended with a platoon of attorneys and flaks that were financed by his ill-gotten gains.
The Chargers’ charges, if true, ring as familiar as Bountygate, Spygate and salary cap circumventions in Washington and Dallas: Hey, we’re just trying to win.
For all their differences, at some point Armstrong and the accused Chargers were faced with a decision. When they reached a fork in the road, which way would their character direct them?
It was not all that different when Gracie stood on the 15th green at El Dorado Park Golf Course and realized she had played the wrong ball.
Which way would her character direct her?
Gracie’s decision was immediate. She let her coach know, and thus a new set of circumstances were set in motion. She was penalized two strokes, and finished the hole with a triple bogey that left her tied with Alicia Arzaga.
As the daylight faded, Gracie and Arzaga went to a playoff hole, where Gracie’s putt for the win hung on the lip of the cup. So they moved on to the next hole. And when it was still tied, another. And then another. When Gracie’s 75-foot putt stopped an inch to the right of cup, a fourth playoff hole.
Finally, Gracie’s par putt was enough to win.
Gracie, whom I have known since she was in elementary school, did not really want to talk about it a few days later. She had been interviewed by a couple of local reporters at the end of the match, her hands still shaking, according to one of the accounts. Then she had been fawned over by the grownups in her extended family, and kidded by her friends.
I understand why she did not want to talk. She is, by nature, serious, intelligent and determined, but not one who enjoys having a fuss made over her. I joked with her father, Dave, that it’s a good thing she’s not Michelle Wie.
What Dave likes about golf is that when his daughter gets in a bind on the course, nobody can call timeout to talk with her and there is no team for her to hide behind. She has to figure a way out.
It is a little bit, then, like parenting. You spend a lifetime setting examples, good and bad, and also searching them out in the hope that somewhere along the line your child develops a conscience, a guide on what to do when they’re older and when decisions will carry greater consequences.
In the end, Jamie got her trophy and that surely counts for something, but over time it will simply become a memento. What is sure to endure – with her family, friends, competitors, coach and others – is the example she set of something much more momentous: the virtue of an honest effort.