The inspiration, if that word is even appropriate in this context, for this post comes from the recently concluded NFC Championship. For those of you who live here in the U.S. of A., I’m going to assume that I don’t need to rehash the nauseating details of the 49ers’ loss. For my international readers, allow me to offer the following as an explanation: Imagine that one of your best fullbacks has been sidelined with a knee injury and is unavailable for the biggest game of the year. In his place is a rookie whose first miscue is a failure to control the ball at his own end, allowing it instead to bounce off his knee thereby setting up a score for the opposition. Then–oh yes, there’s more– in overtime he fails to control the ball again, setting up the winning score for the visiting team. It was quite the opposite of brilliant.
What makes this painful episode fodder for this blog is that there was an almost golf-like, cringing, OMG-I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing- this quality to watching one player contribute so substantially to his team’s demise. It is true, as his teammates were quick to point out, that no one person is ever totally responsible for a team defeat, and there were other notable deficiencies in the 49ers’ performance. But still. It was a lot like watching somebody three-jack it on the 72nd hole to blow the lead, and then seeing the same guy plunk it in the water on the first playoff hole.
But it is in the aftermath of the game, and the startling contrast between the composure of the player in question, Kyle Williams, and the reaction of certain fans, that the most interesting aspects of the whole fiasco reveal themselves. First, young Mr. Williams handled his postgame interviews with class, refusing to make excuses and taking responsibility for his mistakes. In other words, he acted as we are accustomed to seeing Tour golfers behave when they have to explain their failures under pressure. San Francisco fans can only hope that Kyle learns what Rory learned at Augusta last year.
The other, and uglier, side of the coin were the death threats to Kyle Williams made on Twitter in the hours after the game. And herein lies one of the more interesting contrasts between golf and other sports. Strangely, fans will work themselves up into a homicidal frenzy when an individual contributes to the defeat of a team, but nobody makes death threats to a golfer who blows a Major on the back nine Sunday afternoon. And yet, if blame were directly proportional to responsibility, shouldn’t it be the other way around?
But of course it’s not that way. And before we allow ourselves to get all smug about how much better we are than the lowlifes who made the death threats, let’s have all the Forty Niner fans in the room engage in a moment of honest self-appraisal, and admit to harboring, and likely expressing, feelings about Kyle Williams that we never expressed when we watched Dustin Johnson at Pebble (Whistling Straits was a little different, though, wasn’t it?) or Greg Norman at Augusta all those years ago.
One quick explanation, in a sort of off-the-rack intellectual way, is to explain this in evolutionary terms. If somebody screws up something for the group, they have obviously blown it at least once and therefore could be viewed as a potential threat to the group’s survival. We’re not wired to tolerate that sort of thing. In fact, we’re programmed to react very strongly and we get extremely pissed at the dimwit who gets upwind from the mastodon and tips him off about the ambush.
But when it comes to golf, voila, we have evolved a few steps further. As fans who are also players, we have acquired the precious quality of empathy. We know what it’s like to stand over a Putt That Means Something and then see the ball roll past the cup. We’ve launched it O.B. on an important drive. We’ve sprayed the critical approach shot. We don’t get mad when we see a pro do the same thing. We feel sorry for the guy.
And so it was that I found myself feeling sorry for Kyle Williams a lot more quickly than I thought possible. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe after five Super Bowl victories I can’t get all worked up in a desperate way about a sixth (which just shows that I could never qualify as a New York Yankee fan). Maybe the S.F. Giants World Series Championship in 2010, by completing my fan bucket list, has thereby made me a big softy. Or maybe, golf has taught me something about what it means to be a fan, and that you don’t just wear the jersey, but you put yourself in the players’ shoes as well, and from that vantage point you can only do what you have to do for yourself after a disappointing shot: learn the lesson that’s been offered, forgive yourself and move on.