In search of our better selves

October 29, 2019

The men of the PGA Tour call penalties on themselves, accept defeat with grace, shake hands with their adversaries, sign autographs for kids and offer polite and modest comments to the media even when they least want to. They have inherited the values of the game: Play hard, play to win, but play fair. Play the ball as it lies. No whining. They are well-versed in etiquette on and off the course. They’ve had plenty of practice spending countless hours with all kinds of people, so they’re generally good company. They are exemplars, hale and healthy; men of goodness.

Generally speaking, they are nice.

Nice isn’t much in vogue in these bitter, febrile times. It has been rudely shouldered aside by cynicism, fear and loathing. The word has returned to its 13th-century Old French origins, when it meant “foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless, careless, clumsy, weak, poor, needy, simple, stupid, silly.” Nice, according to its newfound, undeserved reputation, plays the percentages; it lays up short of the hazard (with a weak fade). Nice colors between the lines. Nice is politically correct, but much too nice to challenge anyone who isn’t. Nice never gets the girl. Nice would rather compromise, keep the peace, avoid confrontation.

Nice people are still waiting to inherit the earth. They are good at photocopying, but progress depends on a certain outlaw spirit; a willingness to be disagreeable. George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Bob Woodward: “All good work is done in defiance of management.”

There’s certainly more to life than nice. Whenever American hotel porters said “Have a nice day” to the late British actor Peter Ustinov, he would reply: “Thank you, but I have other plans.” Some would say true nice doesn’t even exist. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins asserts that there is no such thing as altruism. He sees humans as natural optimizers, seeking to improve our position in everything we do.

People who seem nice to your face might be saying something quite different behind your back. Flattery, if delivered with a convincing patina of sincerity, gets you everywhere.

And some people who think of themselves as nice can actually be quite nasty—terribly judgmental, projecting anything not nice within themselves onto other people, especially those they consider to be different.

All kinds of famous social-science experiments—not to mention the entirety of human history—tell us that our species has an enormous propensity, perhaps even a predilection, for being not nice. Under certain conditions, we’re all perfectly capable of being spineless, feckless, reckless and cruel. Of cheating, lying, lawlessness. Of improving our lie when no one is looking, finessing the scorecard, cooking the books. Give people permission to behave badly—often at the behest of power—and they’ll often behave badly.

So marginalized has nice become that we’re surprised when we receive it; similarly there is an almost subversive thrill in being nice when there are so many reasons not to be.

Golf fans want to know: Is all the apparent niceness on the PGA Tour for real? What are the game’s best really like—who is truly nice and therefore most deserving of our applause? Whose endorsement-friendly smile continues even when the cameras are turned off? Who is nice to the locker-room attendant, the valet driver, the sales rep, the hackers in the pro-am? Who is generous, modest, grounded? Who is grateful for the riches life has brought them? Who treats people nice whoever they are? Who remembers your name?

True nice is alive and well on the PGA Tour, alongside plenty of true grit.

The likes of Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy demonstrate that true nice isn’t fake or manipulative or self-serving. Neither is it naïve, gullible, weak. True nice knows that there are tough decisions to be made—sometimes you just have to say no—but it knows to execute them nicely. True nice is not incompatible with success; it’s not true that nice guys finish last.

Throughout his 87 years, Arnold Palmer always seemed to love everyone, and they all loved him back. It was because of his niceness that he remained among the highest-paid sportsmen in the world until the end.

Perhaps the nicest moment in golf was when Jack Nicklaus conceded a missable putt to Tony Jacklin in 1969, thereby concluding the Ryder Cup that year in a historic tie after decades of American domination. Such transcendent moments recognize that the game is bigger than us. We are diminished by our petty struttings and frettings; our wants, needs and ambitions can imprison us. In the end, it’s perhaps the small acts of kindness that we remember and that make us feel human again—the unexpected gift, the thoughtful note at a difficult time, an encouraging word, the hand on your shoulder.

Nice people usually had nice parents. But nice parents aren’t a prerequisite. Anyone can be nice. Anyone is perfectly capable of consciously choosing to act in someone else’s interest, or for the common good, even if it’s to our personal detriment.

Every day we’re faced with choices, often among the good thing, the right thing, the “should”—the nice—and the selfish urge, the thing our lustful, hungry, violent animal selves want to do or not do. Perhaps today we’re in no mood to rake the bunker that just ruined our scorecard or laugh along at our buddies’ trash-talking banter. An internal battle of conscience ensues. And it can be a ferocious battle. Freud likened the internal conflict between id, ego and superego to a legendary fifth-century battle between Attila and the Romans and the Visigoths.

The battle is as old as the hills and most people—and families, cultures, countries— generally have a default setting, either on the side of the superego, favoring restraint, prudence, safety and being “good,” or on the side of the id, living their lives with more freedom, spontaneity, creativity and passion. According to Freud, the superego, which usually has its origin in parents, but also teachers, governments and religions, “rages against the ego with merciless violence.” That violence can be the cause of much psychological and bodily distress.

Perhaps we can be nicer to ourselves by acknowledging that we are not always nice. We are none of us saints.

But it’s nice, too, to try to be nice. To be nice is to live with a certain style and grace. If you put nice energy into your world, the world will respond in kind and seem like a nice place.

You meet a lot of people through golf. No one remembers what you shot. But everyone remembers how nice you were.