Let Golf’s Catch-All Cliché—’Grow The Game’—Die Of Shame In Saudi Arabia.

As a working rule, press conferences by PGA Tour players are seldom fertile ground for philosophical treatises, but even against that beggarly standard Bubba Watson managed to produce a veritable bingo card of bullshit in which no box went unchecked.

Watson was speaking at the QBE Shootout, the title of which is now off-brand since its host, Greg Norman, went to work for a regime that prefers bonesaws to bullets (the “QBE Dismemberment” would be a tough hospitality sell). The two-time Masters champion—Watson, obviously, not Norman—was addressing his intent to compete at February’s Saudi International. More out of credulousness than chicanery, I suspect, Bubba delivered as upbeat and varied an explanation as seems possible from a man abetting the normalization of a merciless regime.

He cited his love of travel (a revelation to those who recall his previously voiced disinterest in France and the British Isles), the Saudi financing for women’s golf, helping tourism in the region, the beautiful beaches, a desire to see God’s (his, not theirs) creation and charity.

“They’re trying to change,” he said earnestly of his hosts. It was, he added, all about “trying to grow the game.”

There must have been a time—back when motives were pure and goals were ambitious—that the phrase “grow the game” communicated sincerity and credibility. Perhaps there are instances where that’s still the case, but they are scarce. “Grow the game” has become a one-size-fits-all banality that is destitute of genuine meaning, used instead to promote product and, increasingly, to justify unconscionable money-grubbing.

Consider just a few of the causes in service of which “grow the game” has been marshaled: sports gambling, technology, the Olympics, equipment advances, shorter courses, longer drives, quirkier formats, snazzier apparel, made-for-TV tedium, social-media sniping, diversity and inclusion. From the First Tee to Topgolf to Top Tracer, it is the exhausted slogan of first resort.

When people say “grow the game,” they usually mean grow revenue, and they always mean their own revenue. That context is important. It guarantees that anyone who dismisses “grow the game” as marketing guff will be tut-tutted for negativity, and it persuades others to dish the same dung in case one day it’s their revenue that demands this gossamer-thin veil of nobility.

What has been a steady stream of insincerity about growing golf will surge into a tsunami when Watson and his peers pitch up in King Abdullah Economic City for the Saudi International, pending permission from the PGA Tour. It promises to be a week when professional golfers eagerly slobber about “growing the game” but prevaricate when asked about the human rights abuses of their benefactors. Ever the pioneer, Norman has been busy forging a path for those who will follow.

After recently equating the historical legacy of racism in America with the atrocities currently being committed by his employer, the Great White Pilot Fish tackled gender issues in comments to Golf Digest.

“Women’s rights issues—the women there now, I’ve been so impressed,” he said. “You walk into a restaurant and there are women. They’re not wearing burkas.”

Norman went on to reject criticism of the Saudi government by anyone who has not been there to see things for themselves, an evidentiary requirement that one presumes would have silenced contemporary critics of Nazi genocide because they hadn’t personally inspected Auschwitz. He added that he himself has been going to Saudi Arabia on truth-finding missions for three years, since right around the time the regime hired him to design a golf course.

The extent to which Norman has been willing to abase himself is disappointing, but it’s unsurprising that his every utterance in defense of his disgrace is littered with the painfully familiar platitude. “I always wanted to grow the game of golf on a global basis. Always, always,” he said.

This association alone ought to be sufficient for self-respecting people to forswear its usage. If an aspirational catch-all is required, try “Better the game,” a more individual and granular goal, one not yet compromised by gasbags and geopolitics. One way to start bettering this game: don’t enlist it in an odious campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of an oppressive government.

If the Saudi International is to contribute one welcome change in service of golf, let it be the week when the wretched cliché about “growing the game” finally dies, albeit of shame.

Published at Golfweek.com, December 13, 2021.

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