Zach Johnson’s hands seemed to reach cautiously for the Claret Jug.
Just minutes before, he blinked and winced, fighting back tears and apologizing to a global TV audience while struggling to comprehend a win he once considered unattainable: “I’m a mess. Sorry. Thanks.”
In sports, there are trophies.
Then there are tro-phies, like the Claret Jug.
And beyond shadows cast by vaunted hardware and the blinding sheen of victory, other treasures exist: true trophy moments.
I have enjoyed a lot of these lately, times when a sport seems bigger than any competitor, success over challenge more important than the result. From high-profile international performances to private accomplishments and sacrifices by members of my family or children of friends, the world of sports creates much to polish and savor.
Johnson exuded reverence, relief and disbelief, clutching the prized jug while attempting to grasp a new reality: He had claimed golf immortality by triumphing over Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Marc Leishman of Australia in a four-hole playoff to become British Open Champion.
Later, the clichéd display of a ceremonial kiss on the trophy would play out. But for a magical moment before that, the 39-year-old golfer from Iowa looked subdued, even solemn, casting his eyes downward onto the names of golf legends etched in silver.
To win this year on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, Johnson had to overcome winds battering with wily gusts, punishing rain and schedules subjugated to nature’s onslaughts. Maybe staying grounded instead of trying to soar above it all became paramount.
Yes, it took great shots and timely escapes from near disaster. But even as he doubled over in apparent anxiety shortly after rolling in a 30-foot, downhill putt on the 18th green that eventually put him in a three-way tie for first place, Johnson may have sensed being part of the game was more important than emerging as conquering hero.
“What this does, if anything, is really puts things in perspective for me,” Johnson said when asked to explain how he felt after winning another major championship to go with his victory in the 2007 Master’s Tournament. “I play golf for a living and I’m grateful for that.”
For my part, I am grateful for lessons in humility and appreciation and respect for other athletes along with those who support them — all highlighted by this year’s British Open.
Jordan Spieth saw his quest to win golf’s Grand Slam in a calendar year die on that 18th green. His putt for birdie – to tie the lead at 15 under par after 72 holes of regulation play – missed by inches.
“It stings a little bit, “ Spieth admitted. “But ultimately I thought we gave it a great run.”
Spieth could have behaved like Dustin Johnson, who skipped the U.S. Open awards ceremony after missing two putts on the final hole to fall from assured victory to a share of the runner-up spot. Instead, the 21-year-old Spieth was among the first to congratulate Zach Johnson at St. Andrews.
Spieth’s graciousness in Scotland – a true trophy moment – makes Dustin Johnson’s dismal defeat even starker.
The most valued essence of sports combines love and respect for the game. Sometimes this requires more than you think you can give. And that, in turn, is why athletes who rise above challenge, frustration and heartache reach higher ground.
Cheering on the Waves of Woodley Gardens in Rockville, Maryland at swim meets this summer, I have seen fulfillment acquired by those struggling to finish races and admiration grow among teammates witnessing friends reaching personal milestones. I have seen gratitude mined from way down deep for a coach named Clay Miller who will retire after this season.
I have seen teen-agers and some not far beyond their toddler years show respect for Coach Clay so pure that it transcends the competitive nature of a whole lot of winners representing the Waves in the highly individualized sport of swimming.
All of this, from the links of St. Andrews to Woodley’s concrete hole in the ground that turns bright blue every summer, reminds me why I love sports.
In events featuring the world’s elite or the youngest of athletes, dedication and discipline matter most.
After my son’s first summer with the Waves, he told me he liked training with Clay because the coach cared about helping him improve even if he didn’t win races.
A different coach might have forced my 16-year-old daughter to choose between theater and swimming for the Waves after she got a part in a summer production at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. in D.C. Not Clay.
He let her find her place with the team. She responded, posting personal bests in the breaststroke, individual medley and backstroke. She coached younger Waves for Clay and never missed an early morning practice this season, even when her role on the team diminished as rehearsals and performances for Twelfth Night demanded more.
My 18-year-old son, once a year-round swimmer because of Clay’s encouragement, left the sport to concentrate on running. But Clay’s impact remains; he taught my son to believe in himself.
If you ask my son why he never dropped out of a cross-country race, even when he battled asthma, or rolled his ankle after planting his foot on a hidden rock, or suffered cramps and muscle strains, here is what you probably will hear: “Cross-country runners never quit.”
As far as I know, Clay has not seen my son run. But I’m certain there’s a bit of Clay at the heart of my son’s deep-seeded resolve.
Thank you to all of you dedicated athletes and coaches who love the game, who step up and put yourselves on the line, who reward those around you with respect and regard.
Thank you for true trophy moments.