The term ‘success’ is a multi-faceted one when it comes to sport, and while you can enjoy a terrific career without Major glory, golf’s big four events ultimately define a player’s legacy

Dan Walker Column: What Is Success?

When it comes to sport what counts as success? Do you have to be a serial winner? What about all the golfers who earn a comfortable living but never have a tournament win to their name? Is that success? What about the one-off, one-time, never-seen-again-apart-from-an-exemption Major winners who managed to have one single weekend to remember?

I was having a conversation about this a few weeks ago when short-track speed skater Elise Christie was left in tears at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Christie is a multiple World and European Champion but has failed to pick up a medal of any colour at various Olympic Games despite being the overwhelming favourite. I was reading a newspaper the day after the games finished and the gist of the article was that she was a failure.

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A few days before that I’d been watching a tearful Christie weeping after another disqualification. It wasn’t long before the British skater was sat in a press conference arguing that her legacy wasn’t defined by her inability to win an Olympic medal. So, success of failure?

Earlier this year I watched a Bubba Watson press conference after he picked up his tenth PGA Tour win. He was asked if a player of his obvious ability should have won more in his career?
“You have to remember… my goal was very simple: make the PGA Tour. When you get to the Tour, you want to win,” he said. “Double-digit wins? I am thrilled. Nobody thought Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Florida, could ever get to ten wins. Let’s be honest. No lessons. Head case. Hooking the ball. Slicing the ball. Can’t putt. Somehow we’re here.” He has a point.

Bubba Watson claimed his third Genesis Open title

Bubba Watson claimed his 10th PGA Tour title as the Genesis Open

His argument is certainly helped by the two Green Jackets. Some golfers can’t point at Major wins but can direct us towards career earnings. Lee Westwood has often been criticised for not picking up one of golf’s big ones, but he’s earned more than £40,000,000. Does that count as a successful career?

What about recognition? I live not too far away from Nick Matthew. You could probably walk past Nick in the street and not look at him twice, but he is arguably one of the UK’s most successful sportsmen. Nick is a three-time squash world champion and three-time Commonwealth Gold Medallist. Does the fact that he’s not a household name (largely because squash has been strangely absent from the Olympics) detract from his achievements?

Not everyone reaches the top of their sport. There was an infamous moment at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 when Thierry Henry, Clarence Seedorf and Robbie Savage were all sharing a studio. At the start of the show their trophies appeared on the screen. Henry: one Ligue 1, two Premier Leagues, three FA Cups, two La Ligas, one Champions League, one European Championship and one World Cup. Seedorf: one Dutch Cup, one Eredivisie, one La Liga, one Serie A, one Coppa Italia and four Champions Leagues. Savage: one League Cup.

There was great laughter when that was put on screen and Robbie – who took it well – received an almighty hammering on social media. In his defence, he played for over a decade in the Premier League and one could easily argue that his career was a huge success.

Personally, when measuring success, weight has to come into it. In golf, like tennis, the Majors carry so much more timber than the others. Tim Henman was wonderful to watch but never reached the final of a Grand Slam.

A few years ago I interviewed a number of pro golfers about their sporting heroes and it was the name of Roger Federer that overwhelmingly came out on top. Some of them mentioned his style of play, some the fact he was always smiling and others his grace, but all of them mentioned the fact he produces his best on the biggest stage. Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles and shows little sign of stopping.

Jack Nicklaus

Golfers are judged on majors, and Jack Nicklaus is top of the pile

There are many ways of judging success, and I’d argue that everyone I’ve mentioned above is successful. But if you drill down into the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson and the rest of the world’s best, they all know that once the irons have been permanently left in the garage, they will be judged against the 18 Major titles of Jack Nicklaus and the 14 of Tiger Woods.

Golf is about the big ones.

You can see Dan on BBC Breakfast Mon-Wed or every Saturday on Football Focus. You may also find him on a golf course… probably missing a four-footer