In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on June 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm

In my last post, I offered a list of eight big-time jerks around the wide world of golf, reprinted from my new book, Golf List Mania, written with Ed Sherman. This time, I’ll counter that with a last of class acts.

You know them when you see them – professional golfers who definitely go above and beyond. They may throw themselves into charity work, set up foundations to help the underprivileged, offer free clinics to inner city kids, donate money to good causes without ever letting anyone ever know. They definitely do not curse into a camera after a badly struck shot, cheat on their wives and/or mistresses or blame the media for invading their privacy.

The best of the best will sign autographs after a round until their hands ache, flip a ball to a child walking from green to tee, banter with the galleries and linger in the press room until every question is asked and answered, maybe even rather thoughtfully. They’re the good guys, women included, and the following are among the classiest of them all.

Tom Lehman (10) He got to the PGA Tour the hardest way imaginable, earning and losing his playing privileges several times, trying to scratch out a living on the mini-tour circuit, travelling to the far corners of the world to compete and one winter, even renting cross country skis out of the pro shop at the University of Minnesota golf course. Maybe that’s why, when he hit it big in the 1990s, actually gaining No. 1 in the world for one week, he never lost sight of where he had come from, and how many people had helped him along the way. Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion and a former Ryder Cup player and captain, remains one of the most approachable and accommodating players in the game, a man who still hears the slogan “Nice Pants,” from galleries who remember he once was sponsored by Dockers.

Fred Funk (9) Maybe not making it on the PGA Tour until he was 33 convinced the former University of Maryland golf coach to enjoy the moment and figure out that nice guys really can finish first more than occasionally. In 2004, he took on the task of raising funds for J.T. Townsend, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury playing high school football in his home town of Jacksonville. Funk’s no punk. He helped raise enough money for after care expenses and building a wheelchair accessible home for a young man he and his family virtually adopted.

Jay Haas (8) All you need to know about the mild-mannered, soft-talking Haas is that he was the recipient of the 2005 U.S. Golf Association Bob Jones Award given to a player who exemplifies great sportsmanship. A year later, the Golf Writers Association of America presented him with the Jim Murray Award, honoring him for his career-long cooperation with the media. The 1975 NCAA individual champion from Wake Forest never won a major title on the PGA Tour, but his affable demeanor and never-ending accessibility marked him as one of the game’s great gentlemen. His nine wins on the PGA Tour and double digit triumphs on the Champions Tour also speak volumes about his talent.

Lorena Ochoa (7) The native of Guadalajara, Mexico, attained the No. 1 ranking in women’s golf in 2008, but long before that success she was regarded as a hero to workers grooming golf courses all around the LPGA Tour. Early in her brilliant playing career, Ochoa made it a point to spend time behind the scenes thanking the men, many of them from her home country, who were mowing, raking and weed-eating the course she’d be playing that week. Sometimes, she even stayed and had lunch with them. Golf writers covering her events knew the first words out of her mouth before dissecting her round would always be a cheery “Hello everyone!” Hola and muchas gracias to one of the most gracious champions of any sport.

Kenny Perry (6) Perry never wept or wailed after botching two major championships in heartbreaking playoffs, one of them not far from his old Kentucky home at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville. At the age of 48, he had a two-shot lead with two holes to play in the 2009 Masters, then lost in a two-hole playoff to Angel Cabrera. When it was over, he said, “I may never get this opportunity ever again, but I had a lot of fun being in there. I had the tournament to win. I lost the tournament. But Angel hung in there. I’m proud of him.” Be proud of Kenny Perry, too.

Ben Crenshaw (5) They call him Gentle Ben for a reason, perhaps because it was short for gentleman. One of the game’s all-time great putters, a scholarly golf historian and a winning Ryder Cup captain on a team that staged the greatest comeback in the event’s history, Crenshaw won twice at Augusta National. He endeared himself to golf fans around the world when he knelt down and broke into tears of joy obviously from the heart on the 72nd hole after winning the 1995 Masters by a shot over Davis Love III.

Nick Price (4) This three-time major champion from Zimbabwe came a long way from the days when he flew helicopters in his nation’s military. After that occasional life-threatening experience, no question facing the media ever seemed to faze him, and Price became a favorite go-to guy for every golf writer in the business. He never ducked a query no matter how controversial, and always made it a point to provide an astute, well thought-out analysis of any subject he was ever asked about, a trend that continues as he plays the senior Champions Tour.

Nancy Lopez (3) She grew up in Roswell, N.M. and became one of the most beloved figures in the history of women’s golf. Lopez won nine times her rookie season in 1978 and 48 LPGA events overall, with three major titles. She also finished second four times in the U.S. Women’s Open, the only major blemish on an otherwise sterling playing record. Fans loved her passion on the course and her friendly, accessible style outside the ropes. She became a role model for young female athletes in an era just before the explosion of women’s athletics. She was the approachable, smiling face of the LPGA Tour for many years and, as the doting mother of three daughters, she also demonstrated to her fellow players you really could have it all.

Padraig Harrington (2) When the Irishman was honored at a dinner by the Golf Writers Association of America as the 2008 Player of the Year, Harrington gave an impassioned speech on the importance of a strong media presence at golf tournaments and bemoaned the shrinking newspaper business on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s a gallery favorite who makes himself available to support all manner of good causes and a hero of Ireland not only for his passionate play (oh, those blazing Irish eyes) and three major championships, but humble demeanor on and off the course.

Arnold Palmer (1-tie) With his great gusto for the game, The King changed the face of the sport when he charged out of Latrobe, Pa., in the 1950s to lead his own Arnie’s Army of followers, totally enamored with his go-for-broke, hitch-up-your-pants and stride-with-a-swagger march up the fairways of the world. Some of Palmer’s best pals were the newspaper guys who covered his almost fabled exploits, and he gave them all plenty to write about, even to this day as one of the most colorful and cooperative players of all time.

Jack Nicklaus (1-tie) The year was 1993 and The Golden Bear had just made the cut at the U.S. Open at Baltusrol at the age of 53. As he chatted with reporters after his second round, a young production assistant for ABC Sports kept telling him he was wanted in the television tower to provide commentary on the round. Finally, Nicklaus looked at the pesky young fellow and shooed him away, saying, and we’re paraphrasing here, “some of these guys have been covering me my entire career, and you tell them I’ll be up there as soon as I answer every one of their questions.” For Nicklaus and Palmer, it’s been that way every step of the way over two of the grandest careers in golf history, by far the two classiest acts of all.

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