The asterisk is sport’s scarlet letter, an otherwise benign symbol that when appended suggests a specific achievement is, at best, diminished and, at worst, outright tainted.
Some asterisks are warranted, of course. The name of Mark McGwire* should never appear without one. But not all asterisks are used to denote accomplishments earned by dishonorable means. Some are deployed more as a means to highlight quirks of fate or the foibles of others.
My personal favorite belongs to a horse called Foinavon, which won Britain’s Grand National, in 1967. Every other horse running was involved in a pile-up at the 23rd fence (of 30), providing the jockey riding Foinavon – a long-shot that had been trailing badly – ample time to navigate the melee and cruise to a 15-length victory.
Too frequently these days, asterisks are just churlish attempts to detract from high achievement for the sake of cheap debate. Like the one some critics gleefully attach to Roger Federer’s lone victory at Roland Garros in 2009 because he didn’t beat Rafa Nadal on his way to the trophy. Similarly junky efforts are occasionally evident in golf too.
Padraig Harrington won two majors in 2008 – the Open and PGA Championships – but some folks took care to point out that Tiger Woods wasn’t in the field for either one. Around that time, I asked Harrington how he felt about the beggarly insinuation that his victories were somehow diminished. He shrugged his shoulders and replied with characteristic candor, “You can only beat the people who show up.”
The asterisk – an always subjective and often cruel appendage to an athlete’s finest moment – didn’t stick with Harrington. Paul Lawrie wasn’t as fortunate.
Everyone – Woods included – showed up at Carnoustie in 1999 for the Open Championship and Lawrie beat all of them. Yet no golfer in recent memory has suffered more under the yoke of the asterisk.
That Open is remembered for two things: brutal course conditions and the final-hole implosion of Jean Van de Velde, who lost his three-stroke lead, his socks and his mind. It should also be remembered for a third reason: Lawrie’s performance. His Claret Jug wasn’t gift-wrapped. He matched the low score of the tournament in that final round and sealed a three-shot margin in the playoff (against JVdV and ’97 winner Justin Leonard) with a 4-iron to three feet at the last. Sure, the feckless Frenchman’s diabolique performance presented others an opportunity, but Lawrie alone took it. Yet he has been shortchanged ever since.
The Scot has been painfully honest about his subsequent battle with depression, wearied by the incessant casting of his finest success as owing more to the failure of another. Still, he persisted, and built a fine career: eight wins on the European Tour, two Ryder Cup appearances, one major.
It’s a résumé that most professional golfers would sell their grandmother for – not enough for status on the PGA Tour Champions, mind you, it being the most ridiculous closed-shop in golf – but enough for a man to sleep soundly at night knowing he got a return on his talent.
But wear, tear and Scottish weather takes a toll, and this week – at age 51 – Lawrie announced his retirement from the European Tour during the Scottish Open, his 620th start on that circuit. The low-key announcement – a farewell with no fanfare and no fans – is oddly in keeping with Lawrie’s demeanor. It’s less than he deserves.
His legacy extends beyond that dramatic Sunday on the Scottish coast two decades ago. The Paul Lawrie Foundation has brought more than 20,000 kids into the game, with one beneficiary having won on the European Tour and another finishing low amateur at the Open. And when the Covid-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of Europe’s minor league golf events, Lawrie stepped up to create the Tartan Pro Tour, generating playing and earning opportunities for male and female players who desperately needed both.
Lawrie retires still not having received due credit for his Carnoustie win, but that doesn’t seem to gnaw at him as it once did. Nor should it, because there is something that can be said of Paul Lawrie that counts for much more in the ancestral home of golf: he leaves the game in much better shape than he found it.
Published at Golfweek.com, October 4, 2020