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Put the ‘play’ in playing sports

Rich Mayfield
Vail CO, Colorado

You can have Don Larsen’s perfect no-hitter in game 5 of the 1956 World Series and you can take Wilt Chamberlin’s 100-point NBA game in ’62.

I don’t care that the N.Y. Giants made a great comeback in last season’s Super Bowl.

Even the incredible “Miracle on Ice” U.S.A. hockey team from the 1980 Olympics pales in comparison to the greatest moment in sports history, which happened to occur last Monday afternoon just outside of San Diego, Calif. when Rocco Mediate came in second in the U.S. Open golf championship.

That’s right, second. Some guy named Tiger got the trophy and the $1.3 million that went along with it, but it was Mr. Mediate who made this particular contest the most memorable in not just the history of golf but, I dare say, all of sports, dating right back to the time the Neanderthals bested the Cro-Magnons in inter-era rock tossing.

Mediate played 90 nearly perfect holes of golf, but it wasn’t his play that mattered as much as his PLAY. Mediate spent the five days of the championship appearing to actually be enjoying every shot he made … even the ones that didn’t go exactly where he would have wished. In a sport that is consumed with perfect swing angles and millimeters of measurement, Rocco sauntered up to his ball, took note of where he wanted it to go, wiggled his hips and bent his knees and whacked that white orb with utter abandon. If it went where he wanted, great, but if it headed offline, Rocco never cursed or pouted, he’d just shrug his shoulders, offer up a self-deprecating smile and mosey on down the fairway. You couldn’t help but notice this guy really knew how to PLAY. Rather than spend the intermittent time between swings absorbed in absolute concentration with caddies, demanding quiet and tournament officials offering protection, Mediate chatted with folks in the crowd, waving and wise-cracking as he walked along the course.

You couldn’t say the same for the fellow who actually won the tournament. No question that he is the greatest golfer of his day and probably ever, but that joyous element of PLAY seems to be missing from his game. I suppose it takes that kind of single-minded intensity to become as near perfect an athlete as he is, but there seems to be a sad price that must be paid. From the stories I’ve read, Tiger Woods began playing golf before he could walk and by the time he was just 3 years old he was besting men 20 times his age. An athletic phenomenon to be sure, but one can’t help but wonder if the gifted little boy missed out on the gift of being a little boy.

When I listen to parents describe the kind of commitment they make to their children as they compete in the host of winter sports that these mountains provide, I sometimes worry about the commitment the kids must make as well. All that time shushing, shredding or skating can make for well-trained and traveled athletes who, while playing for championship cups and even college scholarships, may have missed out on the pleasure of simply PLAYING.

With the Beijing Olympics less than two months away, the oft-repeated proverb: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game,” will, I am sure, be, well, oft repeated. Nevertheless, such repetition should not defer us from its inherent wisdom.

At consummate newsman Tim Russert’s funeral on Wednesday, presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, sat next to each other and, rumor has it, as the service ended, the two contenders embraced. How good it would be for this country of ours if those two men would abide by that ancient and anonymous proverb right up through November.

In any case, I’ll hold on to the memory of this past Monday when Rocco Mediate celebrated a championship contest by reminding all of us, middle-aged golfers, student skiers or presidential candidates, that it is the PLAYING that makes all that playing worthwhile.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to letters@vaildaily.com.


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