IT was Leo Durocher, the legendary baseball player and manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who is said to have coined the phrase “nice guys finish last” when referring to rival Mel Ott, of the New York Giants.
Nearly 70 years on from Durocher’s claim, two of golf’s nice guys have disproved his words.
I refer to Paul McGinley and Oliver Wilson.
In the space of eight days earlier this month, the pair highlighted the fact that some nice guys finish first.
McGinley’s leadership of Europe’s Ryder Cup team has set a benchmark for his successor that may be close to impossible to replicate.
Wilson, meanwhile, at long last became a winner – after nine years of frustration and second place finishes – when he was crowned Dunhill Links champion at the Old Course.
In both instances, my faith in sportsmen being able to win with style and humility was at least partially restored.
Both undoubtedly have a cutting edge, otherwise they would not have been capable of achieving such success.
But foremost was the manner of their victories. The brashness verging on arrogance, so often associated with those who transcend excellence and achieve perfection, was absent from their post-match media conferences at Gleneagles and St Andrews
McGinley, a naturally humble man, was quick to praise his players in the immediate aftermath of Europe’s stunning 16½-11½ defeat of a United States side bereft of team spirit.
Compare the Irishman’s post-match delivery to that of his U.S. counterpart Tom Watson, a legend of the game and winner of eight major championships.
McGinley has just nine championships on his CV compared to Watson’s 70 or so. But while 47-year-old McGinley’s achievements as a player pale almost into insignificance when measured against 65-year-old Watson’s, the gulf in class was painfully evident.
Watson sniped and sneered at his players to the extent that he was later forced into a humiliating climbdown in the form of an open letter of apology and, one suspects, a grudging acceptance that as captain he had to shoulder at least part of the blame for yet another embarrassing American capitulation.
It gave me no pleasure whatsoever to watch one of the sport’s true greats and an erstwhile hero of mine being ruthlessly exposed as a mere mortal. But the fact is he was blighted by a much darker side to his personality than any of us who created the almost mythological figure had imagined.
McGinley had a detailed plan carefully thought out over a period of 18 months of painstaking research and quite brilliant execution.
Watson, on the other hand, was exposed as an embarrassingly naive individual who clearly believed that his status alone would be enough to drive his team across the finishing line in first place.
Twenty-one years on from his first stint as captain, which resulted in a 15-13 victory at The Belfry, Watson was hopelessly out of touch with his players.
Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that he was hopelessly out of touch with the Ryder Cup as a whole, given that he had not embraced the biennial match close up in the preceding contests.
But, while Watson was utterly detached from reality, McGinley met the challenge head on and embraced it with enthusiasm, hard work and style.
It is rare for a leader in any sport to be afforded an ovation by the world’s media. But McGinley was applauded by the assembled members of the golfing press who gathered at Gleneagles on the morning after to hear his reflections on a week where the Glen of Eagles reverberated to the sounds of up to 50,000 fans celebrating.
Two days later, following a press conference at St Andrews, McGinley announced that he wished to give the members of the Scottish golf writing fraternity lunch on a future date, by way of a thank-you for our support.
Now that’s what I call class. Watson, I suspect, will not be extending a similar invitation to our counterparts across The Pond – unless he is planning a menu of cold shoulder and sour cream!
To date, no such offer has been forthcoming from Oliver Wilson. But the Englishman won the hearts of those who waxed lyrical about the manner of his achievement in the wake of a maiden European Tour victory that was painfully long in the making.
There had been times, the ex-Ryder Cup player revealed, when he had been on the cusp of pursuing an alternative career as he struggled to make ends meet.
But, with a cheque for close to £500,000 in his hand, Wilson appeared eternally grateful that he had chosen to stick around to emerge from his golfing hell at the 229th attempt after a record nine second place finishes.
In addition to his smile and measured assessment of his achievement, delivered without the least hint of smugness or self-importance, the 34-year-old from Mansfield also displayed obvious signs of emotion after three years of unrelenting misery.
“It’s hard to believe,” he reflected in a shaky voice, “I’ve dreamed of this many times and now that it has arrived, I feel very proud and privileged.”
Wilson had slipped to 792nd in the world from the top 50 six years ago and the future looked grim.
But he added: “I just tried to put it out of my mind and keep working hard and grinding it out, and now it has all been worthwhile.”
To those who have made winning a habit and have forgotten the true meaning of sportsmanship mixed with humility, I say this: Next time you stand on the rostrum, smile and thank God for the privilege.
Think, too, for a moment of Paul McGinley and Oliver Wilson…nice guys who finished first.