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Perry’s poise in defeat is lesson for other athletes

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Here’s the thing about losing in golf.

You can’t blame the referees. You can’t blame the replay official. You can’t blame the bullpen or the pass protection or the goalie or the offensive coordinator.

At least in tennis you can blame the opponent. Maybe he has a great serve and that’s what caused all the trouble, but who gets served a putt? The ball sits there, you hit it. If it doesn’t go to the right place, everyone looks at you-know-who.

It’s an organization of one. The caddie carries the bag, but you carry the burden.

This is why golfers often make the most intriguing losers. In a culture where personal accountability went out with phone booths – disappointment or failure is always somebody else’s fault – the buck still stops with them.

Which brings us to the runner-up in the 2009 Masters. Grace, thy name is Kenny Perry.

He might not have a green jacket hanging in a locker at Augusta National Golf Club, and next year on the night of the Masters champions’ dinner, he might be eating at McDonald’s. But he gets a star on the also-ran walk of fame.

There’s another other thing about golf. Sometimes the loser gets remembered more than the winner. Greg Norman’s Sunday Masters disaster in 1996 is legend. But, uh, who won?

(Time’s up. Nick Faldo).

We know what winners in our team sports are supposed to do. They pour champagne on one another. They ride in a parade. They go to Disney World. They say something like, “Nobody gave us any respect. Nobody expected us to be here except the people in that locker room.”

We have never really decided how we want the second-place finishers to act. Complain, and they’re sore losers. Cry, and there is a question about poise. Laugh, and maybe they just didn’t care enough. Shift the blame, and they’re making excuses.

In Kenny Perry’s doctrine on how to act when it feels like you’ve had your heart ripped out with a 7-iron, you shake the other man’s hand and tell the world you’re proud of him.

You count your blessings and remind everyone that a lot of people out there are struggling, and you just picked up a bundle for four days of golf, so save the sympathy for someone who needs it.

And then you go to call your mother – the one fighting cancer.

Most amazingly, you set an all-time course record for candor, discussing why maybe you didn’t win in the end: “Great players make it happen, and your average players don’t. And so that’s the way it is.”

Let’s see how that translates to other sports.

October. The Red Sox beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series when Derek Jeter strikes out with bases loaded in the ninth.

Jeter afterward: “I am proud of Jonathan Papelbon.”


June. The Lakers win the NBA title when Kobe Bryant scores 47 points. The poor slob assigned to guard him is asked his reaction.

“A great player scores, and an average player can’t stop him. And so that’s the way it is.”

Probably not.

In Perry’s case, this was maturity talking. The nation is divided into two camps – those who remember black-and-white television and those who don’t. Perry, pushing 49, is the former. It is so rare to see a man as close to winning a major golf championship as he is to qualifying for the seniors’ discount at Krispy Kreme.

So he gave a lesson last weekend. Maybe not on how to play No. 18 on Sunday at the Masters, but how a man carries himself.

The next time I see a college basketball coach spend half the game raging at the officials … or a sullen star explode over some imagined slight … or a millionaire athlete talk about how the new contract for a lousy $10 million is an insult … I am going to think of Kenny Perry.

Sometimes a great player makes it happen and an average player makes us think. That’s the way it is.

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