I was having lunch at the Century Club in Manhattan last summer with my golf pal Rick Smith, who used to run Newsweek and now oversees The Pinkerton Foundation, which supports community programs for young people in the poor neighborhoods of New York City. When we're not talking about golf, we're usually talking about our kids. This day Rick was telling me about a book by Paul Tough called How Children Succeed. His point was that everybody thinks success is simply a combination of talent or intelligence and hard work with maybe a little luck thrown in. But Tough's book argues that the key ingredient has more to do with a character trait known as "grit"—a collection of learnable skills such as perseverance, optimism, self-control and bouncing back from adversity.
You can see where I'm going with this. It doesn't only apply to our kids; it has a lot to do with success in sports like golf. I couldn't wait to get back to the office and order the book. Fast-forward to a year's worth of research and reporting by contributing editor Bob Carney and involving Tough as a consultant, and you have our lead piece this month.
At that lunch with Rick, I told him the story of the late Bruce Edwards, who famously caddied for Tom Watson, then left Tom to caddie for Greg Norman (and eventually returned to Watson). Bruce used to get asked about the difference between the two Hall of Famers. "When Greg would get to his ball and find it sitting in the bottom of a divot hole," Bruce said, "his head would go down and he'd mutter something about the bad luck he's always had. Same divot hole, same lie, when Tom would find his ball there, he'd pause, and a smile would slowly cross his face. 'Bruce,' he'd say, 'Wait till you get a load of what I do with this one.' "
Golf is full of such stories. Erik Compton's two heart transplants are on a whole other level, but I find inspiration in the simple day-to-day rebounds, like Olin Browne trying to qualify for the 2005 U.S. Open, shooting 73 in the first round and thinking about withdrawing, then shooting 59 in the second round and playing himself into contention all week. Our cover subject this month, Michelle Wie, is another example. The media abuse she endured the past decade could have driven her away from golf, but here she is, the 2014 U.S. Women's Open champion. (Her article with Life/Play Editor Ron Kaspriske, "Why Now?" explains how, after all these years, she's become the player we thought she'd be.
Of course, Jack Nicklaus is the greatest practitioner of grit in history. Driving to middle school, I would tell my daughters—they recently reminded me—about why Nicklaus loved to wake up on the final day of a championship and look out the window to see heavy winds and rain. "He knew half the field didn't have the talent to play in such conditions," they'd repeat after me. "And half of the rest would give up, so he had to beat only a handful of competitors. They knew it, and he knew it."
But my favorite Nicklaus story was written by another golf pal, Dave Anderson of The New York Times, who chronicled the 1981 British Open at Sandwich when, before the first round, Jack's son Steve, then 18, flipped a station wagon on the Jack Nicklaus Freeway back in Ohio. Like any good father, Jack shot 83 that day.
"My highest score as a pro, I think," Jack said in the locker room afterward. "I suppose one day in your life you're going to shoot your highest score."
It was true grit Jack showed that day when he welcomed the writers to join him. "You guys are persistent," Dave remembers him saying. "You're big news," somebody said. "C'mon in," Jack said. "Why don't I sit over here in this corner." Not many players—fill in the blank—would have been so gracious under the circumstances.
And did I forget to mention? Jack shot 66 the next day.