The Case for Competitive Civility

Posted 08.17.2015


The executive that signed professional golfer Jordan Spieth to a long-term endorsement deal with Under Armour should get a raise. In the year, since he signed on, the 21 year old Texan has won two major golf championships, missed winning the other two by a total of four strokes and, with his second place finish in the PGA Championship yesterday, captured the number one ranking in the world.

He did all of this while remaining calm, steady and friendly. In short, he’s an absolutely killer competitor who is, by the standards of any era, remarkably civil.

I paid more attention to the PGA Championship this year because I had the very cool opportunity to be at the tournament site in Kohler, Wisconsin last Tuesday to speak at a program called Beyond the Green. It’s a day-long event that the PGA puts on for women executives and business owners. The setting at Whistling Straits was so stunning and the organization of the tournament was so impressive that I watched whenever I could over the weekend.

Here’s what I noticed about Jordan Spieth in yesterday’s final round. He started the day three strokes behind the tournament leader, Jason Day. They were paired together in the last grouping and went head to head with some masterful golf. The stakes for both were as high as they could be. If Spieth won, he’d be one of only three players (Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods being the other two) to win three major championships in one year. Day was trying to win his first major after some heartbreaking near misses earlier this year. Spieth did everything he could to press Day throughout the afternoon. Day never wavered. He finished where he started, three strokes ahead of Spieth, and won the Championship.

It was thrilling competition but what really stood out for me was the civility of both competitors. In spite of the tension and the stakes, they actually talked and laughed with each other. They interacted with fans lined up on the ropes for fist bumps and high fives. When Day boomed a drive on one hole 80 yards past Spieth’s own 300 yard drive, Spieth laughed and said to Day, “Holy ****, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” Day grinned back and flexed his biceps. By the time they got to the 17th, it was clear to Spieth that, barring a disastrous 18th hole, Day was going to win the tournament. As Day rolled a 40 foot putt within a couple of feet of the hole for an easy par, Spieth gave him a big thumbs-up. On 18, after Day tapped in his last putt to win the tournament, the two of them hugged it out on the green.

One of the things I said to the women at the Beyond the Green program is that golf, like so many sports, can serve as a metaphor for life. There are often times in professional life when we find ourselves in competition with others. It’s easy to get sucked into the competitive dynamic and lose sight of the humanity of the players involved – theirs and ours. Yesterday, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day reminded those who watched them that it’s entirely possible to be a killer competitor and still be a civil, decent human being. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Good on them for providing the reminder and good on us if we heed it.