At Your Service: April 14, 2010

Last weekend Tiger Woods returned to the game of golf to play in The Masters, the tournament many consider to be the jewel in the crown of the PGA Tour. When the tourney ended on Sunday, Phil Mickelson had prevailed, Tiger had tied for fourth and a whole lot of amazing golf had been played. It demonstrated once again that the fiercer the competition the better the play. We often rue the competition, but nothing calls forth our best like a high standard.
Even after The Masters Tiger Woods remains the number one ranked golf player in the world and in history. He began the series with a personal best on the first round and his fourth-place finish was better than has been posted by many a Masters winner in the past. It is not coincidental that those who finished ahead of him each played the best game of his career.
Phil Mickelson had his own reasons for wanting to win and a commitment that could not be deterred. His wife Amy’s battle with breast cancer has served as a natural distraction to his game recently. He played a game on Saturday that included a riveting march from the 13th to 18th hole that moved him ahead in the competition by five strokes. It was a remarkable performance deserving of the $1.3 million winnings and punctuated by the first time in a long while presence of his wife at the 18th hole to celebrate.
Neither Lee Westwood (second place) nor Anthony Kim (third) have previously performed at the level they posted last week, and KJ Choi was a virtual unknown who was only invited to play in the two weeks before the match. Choi then drew Woods as his playing partner and finished tied with him for fourth place. The match also included a record-breaking two holes-in-one in the same round on Sunday and so many personal bests that commentators stopped remarking about them.
Fierce competition is what attracts us to the Olympics and professional sports in general. Watching people perform at their best serves to remind us that we too are capable of high performance. That part of us that strives for excellence is called forth and we revel in our own version of “the dream.”
Another part of us – the one that seeks comfort and an easy passage – would rather not try so hard. One aspect of our dilemma is that in order to achieve our personal best, we must do it within a common life. All around us we find people offering something less than their personal best and often significantly less. By way of evidence, I cite the fact that I heard this week from many people responding to last week’s column about a mediocre restaurant experience. People asked if my experience had been at any of six different local eateries.
Quite independently, I had the occasion to speak this week with the owner of a new restaurant. He is committed, at this early stage, to being the best in the area. When asked about his competition, he said, “This calls the other guys to step up their game.” As the new competition, he is in a good position to throw out a challenge. If we are all lucky, he will hold on to his enthusiasm, follow through with continuing excellence and inspire/spur everyone else to be better.
It matters not whether we are new to our game or a seasoned pro, competition continually calls us to be better than we might otherwise be.