Jordan Speith and caddie Michael Greller bump fists on the 18th hole at the end of the 79th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National, April 11, 2015
Jordan Speith and caddie Michael Greller bump fists on the 18th hole at the end of the 79th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National, April 11, 2015

Jordan Speith won the Masters golf tournament at age 21 and showed a great amount of class in doing so. Yes, this story is a bit old already (at one week, it’s ancient in our current media environment), but it’s worth talking about because the cultural implications are important.

As Christian Brennan noted in USA Today,

When Jordan Spieth won the Masters on Sunday, we won too. People who have grown sick of self-absorbed athletes won. Parents and coaches preaching sportsmanship in youth sports won. Those young athletes won, too.

They won because they witnessed something we don’t see every day on our grandest cultural stages. They saw a young American, not even 22 years old, win one of the great U.S. sporting events with a kind of unspoken class and grace that would seem to come from another era.

Brennan points out that Tiger Woods won the Masters at the same age but made it an occasion for ego displays and self-congratulation, the very opposite of Speith’s demeanor and an attitude that has lasted throughout Wood’s storied career, sometimes in rather dismaying manifestations:

The little things are telling with these two golf princes, separated at birth by 17½ years. This week, Tiger again showed he simply cannot stop himself from swearing into open microphones when he said a particularly bad word after a terrible snap-hook off the tee into the trees on No. 13.

A couple of hours later, Spieth made his way to No.13, to the same spot, and also hit a poor tee shot into the trees.

His epithet?

“Oh, Jordan!”

One is 39. The other is 21. I think we’re trading up.

I agree with Brennan’s view of the situation, though one could surely argue that Woods, at least before the dissolution of his marriage, was simply more demonstrative than Speith and made golf more entertaining and more popular by bringing an attitude common in other professional sports. But one thing is certain: people saw a good deal of meaning in what Woods did, however they may have evaluated him and his actions.

It’s fashionable for conservatives and liberals alike to argue that the culture has become coarsened (each, of course, blaming the other for the problem), and it’s true that there is much more public vulgarity and other low-class behavior in the culture than in years past. There is, however, also much laudable behavior among our public figures. There is, in fact, more of everything in our twenty-four-hour news and trivia information cycle.

Hence it’s rather deceptive to look at the extremes and make blanket claims about where the culture and society are going.

If, for example, one were to look to the most prominent golfers of the past two decades for one’s clues about the state of the nation and our culture, one could have seen Tiger Woods as a breath of fresh air and then a symbol of all that is wrong with “us,” Phil Mickelson and Rory McElroy as symbols of a decline of America’s fortunes, and Jordan Speith as a beacon of new hope for a nation digging its way out of a protracted time of low achievement and poor character.

Or, one might create an alternative interpretation of the facts. Such projections out from one set of phenomena to the entire culture are a tempting parlor game and a handy weapon against those whose vision of the great society differs from one’s own.

Instead, it’s best to recognize that in our postmodern world which I call the Omniculture, everything happens, and everything happens publicly. Jordan Speith appears to be not only a great golfer but a fine individual. That may change. But what will never change is the fundamentals of personal character that make for a good and truly successful person. Jordan Speith’s display of class and character at this year’s Masters will be displaced in the news soon enough, but it will always be a true north for those who choose to look for the right way to go about life.

That is perhaps as big an accomplishment as his golf score at the Masters, and it will remain true and good for even longer than there will be record books recording his name and score.