NORTON, Mass. — Gary Player almost lost the Claret Jug.
This was in 1974, when a 38-year-old Player won the last of his three Open Championship titles at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, then went out for a celebration.
“My caddie Rabbit and I went to the local pub for a drink and to celebrate with several players and fans,” he recalls. “We passed around the Claret Jug and they all drank from it, too. It was quite fun to share that with so many people. We left the pub and on return to the hotel, I asked Rabbit where the trophy was. He said, ‘Gary it’s your trophy, I thought you wouldn’t let it out of your sight.’ We returned to the pub, and to our relief, the barman had kept it safe. But said he had to take a chug himself.”
The man known as the Black Knight punctuates this tale of revelry with a laugh, another memory in a lifetime filled with them.
But the punchline underscores another detail: Forty-three years ago, professional golfers were celebrating with each other after victories.
The truth is, it’s a practice which has always existed. There is no account of runner-up Old Tom Morris waiting on the final green at Prestwick to shake the hand of Willie Park Sr. after winning the first Open Championship in 1860, but it certainly doesn’t sound out of the realm of possibility, either.
And yet, that hasn’t dissuaded public backlash against the current generation of youthful stars who are seemingly only carrying on a tradition.
“It’s almost added motivation, it inspires you to put yourself in that position. I think it can be very beneficial to be there and see your friends win and celebrate with them. You want them to be coming to watch you and celebrate with you when you win.”
Just a few weeks ago, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were among those waiting near the final green at Quail Hollow to congratulate Justin Thomas on his first major triumph. One month earlier, those same players converged at Royal Birkdale when Spieth won.
The social media outcry was as pedantic as it was predictable.
The criticism stated that these players should want to bash each other’s brains in, not celebrate with them after their success. That they should be forlornly kicking themselves in some hidden locker room, not gracefully applauding for a fellow competitor. That they should only enjoy their individual success, not the Brat Pack-ish all-for-one mentality.
This notion hardly carries any weight, but makes even less sense when these players are asked about their motivation.
“This is the same thing we would do for a friend who got a big promotion at their job and wanted to celebrate,” Spieth explains. “You’d do it for any of your closest friends. It’s the same idea, we just happen to be in the public eye.”
“It’s almost added motivation, it inspires you to put yourself in that position,” Fowler says. “I think it can be very beneficial to be there and see your friends win and celebrate with them. You want them to be coming to watch you and celebrate with you when you win.”
Golf’s so-called Big Three — Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer — aren’t simply revered for their stunning performances and various notations in the game’s record books. Much of their legendary status derives from the way they treated each other, lifelong rivals on the course who enjoyed the camaraderie off of it.
“As I grew up, sports was supposed to be a sport, and athletics was a place where you displayed character, and that was reflected in how you accepted victory and defeat. My dad taught me that when I was a kid. He said that the most important thing in sports is to be gracious in victory and be sincere in defeat.”
18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus
In other words, they were classy in victory and classy in defeat.
“I used to cheer for guys,” Nicklaus openly admits. “If I wasn’t in contention, I would wait to see them in the locker room and congratulate them. I don’t like the ruthlessness. We never had any of that. As I grew up, sports was supposed to be a sport, and athletics was a place where you displayed character, and that was reflected in how you accepted victory and defeat. My dad taught me that when I was a kid. He said that the most important thing in sports is to be gracious in victory and be sincere in defeat. If somebody plays better than you and defeats you, then I think they deserve a firm handshake, a smile, a congratulations, a pat on the back and say, ‘Well done.’ I think when you shake that person’s hand, you should mean it and make him or her feel as if you mean it.”
That opinion is hardly an uncommon one.
“You compete against your friends and if it’s true friendship and one that will last — because there are many that don’t for whatever reason — you celebrate each other’s victories and commiserate each other’s defeats, too,” says Player. “I love the idea of sharing in the joy of victory between family, players and fans. When you win, you relish in the praise and congratulations from everybody and likewise you should be happy for others in victory, too.”
When asked for anecdotes of celebrating — or commiserating — with fellow competitors during their playing days, Nicklaus and Player offered disparate stories which should further the argument for camaraderie.
“Every player needs to do what works for them,” Player explains. “If you give a guy a fist-bump or nod even though he just beat you on a hole because it fires you up to play better, do it. You can look them in the eye to remain focused on your own game too. I played 36 holes with Sam Snead in a tournament many years ago and at the end of it, I asked him what he thought of my swing. To my surprise, he said, ‘Son, I haven’t seen you swing yet.'”
“One time after Turnberry,” Nicklaus recalls of the 1994 Open, “when I wasn’t in contention and Tom Watson lost coming down the stretch, I called him and invited him to dinner. He didn’t even want to leave his room, but half an hour later, he called me back and said, ‘Sure. Let’s go.’ Next thing you know, we ended up on the Par 3 Course and it was 1 a.m. Everyone was probably wondering, ‘What in the world are those jerks up to, making all that noise?'”
Little has changed over the years, save for the fact that such tales now own a measure of immediacy.
We wouldn’t have known Nicklaus was yukking it up with Watson after a tough loss years ago, but now we often know the exact minute that Spieth drinks out of Zach Johnson’s Claret Jug or Thomas drinks out of Spieth’s, thanks to Instagram and Snapchat postings of the proceedings.
Similarly, we wouldn’t have known — or maybe even cared — if Spieth and Fowler had waited for Thomas in the player lounge at the recent PGA Championship, but their presence near the final green was caught by the omnipresent television cameras, which displayed the golfers’ images to the masses, leading to people questioning their motives.
Spieth calls it “unfortunate” that his support of a friend becomes such a publicized subplot to the proceedings, but isn’t worried about how it looks or whether he’ll draw ire from fans who wish he was secretly sulking at his own loss instead.
“[Justin] and I grew up together, we played the same events, we traveled together, our families are close,” Spieth explains. “He’s legitimately one of my best friends in the whole world. He’ll be in my wedding. This is a really good friend who just happens to be at the top level of what he does and it’s the same thing that I do. Why would I not go out there and be extremely happy for him after all the hard work he’s done for 10 years to achieve something?”
“It was awesome,” says Thomas. “For those guys to stick around when they could go do their own thing, it’s really cool. It’s special to me. I’d do the same thing for them. When you come off the green and have them waiting for you, you realize how cool it is and appreciate them doing that.”
At 41, Johnson has witnessed the game’s transformation from one generation to the next. While some might contest that Tiger Woods never had other players openly waiting to cheer his next major victory — nor did he ever publicly wait around to celebrate one of theirs — it’s not as if the practice of partisanship skipped the past generation.
Johnson drank out of the Claret Jug when it was won by Todd Hamilton in 2004 and Stewart Cink in 2009, avoiding any jinx by later winning it himself. Spieth drank out of Johnson’s Jug in 2015 and won it two years later with no repercussions of the superstitious.
“We all travel together,” Johnson says. “We’re a nomadic business, so if you’re going to have any sort of social life, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be with the individuals you’re competing against. We know how hard it is to win. So you’re going to be excited for them when they win a tournament. There’s nothing wrong with that. I understand that some want to see the rivalries, like a Duke-North Carolina thing, but it’s just not.”
He then poses another theory as to why this makes sense.
“Who’s our competitor every day, every week? It’s the golf course. I can’t do anything to my fellow players. There’s nothing in my arsenal that will determine or control what they do.”
If there’s a single player who draws the most indignation for celebrating with friends, it’s Fowler. Despite seven career top-five finishes in majors, including six in the past four years, he’s still seeking his initial title, for now rendering him near the top of that best-player-to-have-never-won-a-major list, golf’s ultimate backhanded compliment.
Yet, each time a good friend is about to win a major, if he’s available and it’s convenient and the timing works, he’ll be right there to cheer them on.
“Growing up, through junior golf, amateur golf, we always had friendly matches; that was a big part of pushing each other to the next level and helping each other get better,” Fowler says. “It’s been fun to have that same kind of situation out here … It’s obviously cool to see your buddies play well and to be there to congratulate them. The times that I’ve won and had some people there for me — most recently at the Honda, when (Justin Thomas) was there — it’s cool to see. It’s not like I expect anyone, but it’s fun for us.”
Spieth believes that when Fowler wins his first major — yes, that’s when not if — he might be surrounded by the largest contingent of peers ever.
“We’re all going to want to be a part of it,” Spieth insists. “That guy is one of the nicest human beings in the world. It’s genuine. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. He’s not doing it for any other reason. When he celebrates with us, it’s because he’s genuinely happy for us.”
When it’s pointed out to Fowler that he’s stood near the final green to congratulate friends at the Masters, Open Championship and PGA Championship, meaning he needs just the U.S. Open for the career Celebration Slam, he just smiles.
“Maybe that’s my turn to get mine,” he surmises. “Finish off the real slam of celebrations.”