Imagine if you started playing the game of golf at age one. You are so committed to the sport that you win the state championship as a high school sophomore. You lead your college golf team and graduate with the most wins in that school’s history. For the first two years of your professional career, you toil in the equivalent of golf’s minor leagues. You have mixed success, so you decide to hire a coach and retool your swing. Finally, at the age of twenty-five, all of your hard work pays off. You find yourself in a two-person playoff at the Argentina Open. The winner gets an automatic spot in the British Open, one of the sport’s four major tournaments. You need to make an eight-foot putt to keep the playoff going. It is a relatively straight forward putt, one you have made time after time in your career. You approach the ball, set up, start your backstroke, and in the split second before you make contact with the ball, something terribly unfortunate happens. A fan yells, causing you to become distracted and miss the putt. You lose the playoff along with the chance to fulfill your dream of playing on the PGA Tour – in one of the majors no less. What do you do?
This is exactly what happened to Brandon Matthews late last year. He did what most of us would do. He reacted with anger, turning toward the crowd to find the person who, as he admits he assumed at the time, purposefully distracted him. Throwing his hands up in the air, he headed to the clubhouse, dejected, frustrated, and angry. Shortly thereafter, a tournament official approached Matthews and told him what had actually occurred. The fan who had yelled was a middle-aged man with Down syndrome. He was reportedly so excited that he lost control of his emotions. Upon hearing this, Matthews almost broke into tears. He asked that he be taken to the fan immediately. Here’s how Matthews describes the encounter.
“I gave him a hug and I asked him: ‘Hey, are you doing OK? Are you having fun?’ I just wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself, that he had no hard feelings, that he didn’t feel bad about what happened. I didn’t want anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do. Some things are bigger than golf. And this was one of them.”
There are so many lessons in this story. The most obvious is the importance of kindness. As I wrote recently, humanity (which encompasses love and kindness) is one of the six universal virtues, recognized across all cultures and traditions. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” A core concept in Buddhism is metta, or loving-kindness. In modern times, we even have a National Random Acts of Kindness Day and a foundation dedicated to such acts. We intuitively understand the power of kindness. What it feels like to be treated with compassion and love. What if feels like to give someone else that gift. And yet, we are living in an age where kindness is in short supply. Instead, the dominant emotions of our time are anger, resentment, and hatred. We are all prone to judge too quickly for sure. To feel angry. To seek retribution. This is normal. But it is our ability to transform anger into kindness and compassion that is the lesson Brandon Matthews offers us. As a side note, the family of the late Arnold Palmer took note of his act of kindness, and extended an offer to play in the March 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational, Brandon’s first appearance on the PGA Tour.
Less obvious is what this incident can teach us about meaning. Human beings are meaning making machines. We encounter situations that are inherently devoid of meaning, and we ascribe meaning to them. A strange look from a loved one, a remark from a colleague, a yell from a fan. Not only do we interpret these situations, but we do so automatically and subconsciously. We filter these interpretations through a bias of negativity and self-protection. Worse yet, we conflate the stories we construct about situations with fact. We can’t keep separate our evaluation of something from the thing itself. In many cases, our judgments are accurate. But, oftentimes, they are wrong. Like Matthews, we automatically assume that something we experience was intentionally done in a manner designed to harm us. We rarely pause to consider alternative explanations. Indeed, we don’t see any possibility other than what we now deem as fact.
I am not immune from this phenomenon. For example, my wife might ask me a simple question like, “Did you check in with Dylan (our youngest child)?” If I’m not conscious (which happens more than I care to admit), I will automatically, unthinkingly interpret that as, “You haven’t checked in with Dylan and I’m annoyed with you.” And I treat my story as fact. I don’t even see the difference. I certainly don’t see the possibility that my wife was asking me the question so that she could kindly offer to check in on our son in the event that I hadn’t already done so (which is usually the case). And here’s the kicker. Meaning drives actions, and actions drive results. In this example, I snap back at my wife. I’m unkind. I act out of an unconscious interpretation. And I wonder why we’re experiencing so much divisiveness in the world right now.
There is a final, deeper lesson in this story. A lesson around responsibility. A lesson I am guessing Matthews himself didn’t fully appreciate. Despite his extraordinary maturity and kindness, we are still left with the sense that the yell caused him to miss the putt. There’s certainly some truth to this. But holding the belief that events happen to you – what I call a victim mindset – will leave you with little access to learning and effectiveness. The most powerful shift any individual can make is from a victim mindset to a responsible mindset – the belief that you control and shape your circumstances. I will go one step further and assert that I am 100% responsible for my life. Importantly, that is not an assertion of truth. No one is truly 100% responsible. Your environment matters. But if I hold the belief in 100% responsibility, not as an assertion of truth but as a stand to take in life, the actions I will take and the results I will get will be dramatically different and more effective.
From a responsible mindset, Matthews would see that he, and only he, was responsible for that missed putt. From a place of 100% responsibility, he would ask himself, “What could I have done that would have driven a different result in that situation? And what could I do going forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” He would realize that there is always the possibility of a fan yelling, or a small animal darting into his field of vision, or countless other unexpected sources of “distraction.” He might recall the famous story of Tiger Woods’ father who used to jingle coins or throw golf balls at his son in the middle of his practice swings. He did so because he knew intuitively that his son, and only his son, would bear the responsibility of his success or failure on the course. This may be the most important lesson the Matthews incident can offer us. Today, there is much to fix and change in our environment. Yet, it would be a tragic mistake to focus on fixing the environment without also taking 100% responsibility for our circumstances. Another example of a paradox that requires a certain level of maturity and wisdom to fully appreciate and embrace.