When I was trying to decide who the subject of this article should be I took an informal poll of the family on the day after Christmas. The first part of the debate turned into a discussion about what the “Sportsman of the Year” title actually means. That’s a difficult definition to derive. Should the title be awarded to the best athlete of the year? Should it be awarded to the athlete who generated the most publicity during the year? Should it be awarded to “the best athlete who isn’t too much of a tool” (as was suggested to me)? What we generally arrived at was an award for an athlete who most exemplified sportsmanship during the last year. There are a lot of worthy candidates, but I’ve arrived at a pretty unconventional nominee. I nominate Dustin Johnson for The Sports Debates 2010 Sportsman of the Year.
While Dustin Johnson had an outstanding 2010 season – winning two tournaments and finishing fifth in the FedEx Cup standings – his 2010 season will be most remembered for a gaffe/misunderstanding/mistake he made at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin. Johnson entered the 72nd hole of the championship with a one-stroke lead, but knocked his tee shot well off the course to the right. He then took out a six iron, hit a solid shot to the green, and two-putted his way, seemingly, into a three-hole playoff. As he was walking off the 18th green a PGA of America official came up to him and asked him if he had grounded his club in the bunker in which his tee shot landed. That lead to several confused minutes where Johnson and rules officials discussed whether or not the ball was in a bunker and whether or not he did, in fact, ground his club. In the end, Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty and his chance to win the PGA Championship was gone.
My nomination, however, was not because of anything Johnson really did on the golf course during the 2010 season. What stuck with me is how he reacted when it was determined that he would not be participating in the playoff. He handled the situation, undoubtedly the most difficult of his golf career, with a matter-of-fact grace that is uncommon in professional athletes. Perhaps, behind closed doors, he did not handle it as well as the television cameras portrayed. But, when the bright lights were on, he was a solid example of how to handle adversity in sports.
As any sports fan knows, it is much too common these days for professional athletes to complain about their situation and pass the blame around when things start to go wrong. Johnson could have upbraided the rules officials or the course designer. He could have slammed his caddy and fired him on the spot for not alerting him to the fact that he was in a bunker and could not ground his club. He could have broken out the “woe is me” routine. Instead, he faced the situation directly and set an example for those watching of how to handle public adversity. For his grace under fire, I nominate Dustin Johnson for TSD’s 2010 Sportsman of the Year. Happy holidays, everybody!