There’s a well-known old proverb that it is better to be born lucky than rich. But in sport, luck is a dirty word. To dare suggest that someone might have got a tad lucky on their way to wining is tantamount to insulting both their ability and their work ethic. Such temerity is brusquely dismissed with sarcastic ripostes such as the famous quote attributed to 9 time Major winning golfer Gary Player: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” This defensiveness is understandable, of course. Who likes to be told they didn’t deserve their hard-won success; after all, that’s what is being implied, isn’t it, when we say someone was lucky?
On Sunday, Danny Willett won the Masters because Jordan Spieth came to grief on the 12th hole with a quadruple bogey. To put it bluntly: Willett won because Spieth blew it. At least, that’s how the American papers saw it, though most British fans would take umbrage with such a seemingly facile perspective, citing Willett’s flawless, bogey-free five under par 67 final round versus Spieth’s inconsistent one over 73 score. Obviously Willett deserved to win. However, is it wrong to suggest that Willett only got the opportunity to win because Spieth faltered on the final few holes? In other words: Willett got lucky that Spieth got wobbly? And if he did, what’s wrong with being lucky?
A few years ago, ex-England cricketer Ed Smith, wrote a thought provoking book on the concept of luck and its often pivotal role in the outcome of success and failure in life and sport. In ‘Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters’, Smith makes a compelling case for acknowledging, and even embracing, the role of luck in sport. Nevertheless, Smith’s book is not a polemic. It does not pit luck against hard work or talent, those two favoured designators of success, but simply accords luck its place alongside them in the sporting narrative.
For there is no doubt that luck – good and bad – plays its part in sport (as it does in life), and to dismiss it, particularly in relation to success – strange how it always tends to rear its head as a convenient means of explaining failure – is disingenuous, because sport is littered with remarkable tales of luck. For instance, the Denmark football team winning the 1992 European Championships even though they failed to qualify for the tournament, and only got in as lucky losers because Yugoslavia were disqualified for fighting a civil war; or tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, having to beg for a wildcard from the Wimbledon committee so he could play in the 2001 tournament, and then memorably going on to win it, helped by a timely rain delay when he was losing in the semi final. Perhaps, most extraordinarily, Australian speedskater Stephen Bradbury winning Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, having been 20 yards behind at the finish, simply by being the last man standing as all the contenders took each other out. Danny Willett himself was lucky in the first instance even to be playing at the Masters because his wife had been due to give birth to their child on the final day, but the baby arrived prematurely, enabling Willett to compete at the last minute.
Such are the twists of fate, or fortune, or destiny, chance, luck, kismet, providence, or whatever you want to call it. But whichever way you define it, you cannot deny its existence in sporting endeavour. I have always believed there are four requisite components to achieving success in sport – talent, application, character, and luck. Yet the first three are commonly taken for granted, while no one ever dares admit to luck being a contributing factor. To acknowledge luck is not to denigrate the innate gifts of the talented athlete or to disparage their character and dedication to their vocation, nor to undermine their capacity to control their own destiny; it is to recognise and accept human susceptibility to the vicissitudes of life.
Ultimately, although luck can, and does, provide a gilded opportunity to attain success, it is the ability to take that propitious chance which separates the successful from the rest. When Spieth lost the lead at the 12th, there were two other players besides Willett who were also in contention to win: Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson. Yet, the moment the Masters was there for the taking, the two perennial bridesmaids faltered on the way to the altar. In contrast, Willett grasped his chance with ruthless efficiency; coolly birdieing the 16th to reinforce his lead and then making a nerve jangling, par saving chip at the 17th, when a bogey seemed the most likely outcome, with the assured steeliness and steady composure of a champion. It may have been luck that had provided Willett with his opportunity, but it was his character, determination, and endless hours of hard work preparing his game for just that moment, which won it for him.
So maybe that’s the secret to success: you have to be ready to be lucky. And that takes a lot of hard work, and not inconsiderable amount of talent and character.