It’s unlikely that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will ever respond to the letter he received this week from Greg Norman, for much the same reason that he probably wouldn’t engage someone wearing a tinfoil hat and shrieking in the street. But if he did reply, Monahan could do worse than to heed the example of James Bailey, a former general counsel for the Cleveland Browns.
In 1974, an Akron, Ohio, lawyer named Dale Cox angrily threatened to sue the Browns over the dangers posed by fans launching paper airplanes around him in the stadium. Bailey returned the complainant’s letter with a famously terse response that has been widely circulated over the years.
“Dear Mr. Cox,” he wrote, “I feel that you should be aware that some asshole is signing your name to stupid letters.”
Legend has it that Marcus Licinius Crassus of Rome was killed by the mutineering men he’d led into a failed battle, who poured molten gold down their leader’s throat in mockery of his thirst for wealth. Philip Alfred Mickelson of Rancho Santa Fe, on the other hand, was merely deserted by his bootless troops as the cause in which he had conscripted them slipped away. As for the symbolic choking on needless greed, he served and swallowed that ruinous cocktail himself.
An old adage—often wrongly attributed to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”—holds that if you wait by the riverbank long enough, the bodies of your enemies will eventually float by. That’s as good a metaphor as any for how some golf industry executives must have felt in the wake of recent comments by Phil Mickelson that incinerated his reputation, alienated most every constituency in the game, exposed him to disciplinary action, and otherwise cast him in a light so unflatteringly amoral that even Greg Norman might hesitate to be seen in his company.
Even casual golf fans might wonder what is left for parody after Charley Hoffman castigated the PGA Tour for being insufficiently protective of its players, a particularly audacious claim from a journeyman who continues to reap a handsome living despite having registered zero wins and just four top 10 finishes in the last 500 days.
It’s difficult to ascertain exactly which character trait—Hubris? Hypocrisy? Indecency?—motivates someone to furiously demand the freedom to exercise his rights while being applauded by benefactors from a regime that dismembers its critics for doing just that. Or to pause his guzzling from the teat of Middle Eastern royalty only long enough to denounce the “obnoxious greed” of an organization that made him an enormous sum of money (which is not to presume he still has it).
“Obvious lies serve a purpose for an administration,” wrote Garry Kasparov, the chess great and courageous critic of Vladimir Putin. “They watch who challenges them and who loyally repeats them. The people must watch, too.”
We are entering a week in which golf fans will be inundated with obvious lies from the Saudi International, peddled by players exhibiting all the sincerity of $20 hustlers trying to say it like they mean it.
“I’m trying to grow the game.”
“They are trying to change here.”
“I’m just here to play golf.”
“I want to compete against the best.”
“I’m not a politician.”
The ashamed might at least look uneasy in their prevarications. The shameless will be all thumbs-up and duplicitous grins. And everyone will depart the Kingdom richer, but only in cash terms. This effort to launder the Saudi regime’s grotesque reputation will soil that of many others.
Golf has long been burdened with clichés that are more heavily trafficked than the 405 at rush hour, and yet the sport’s lingua franca manages to grow still more insipid and hollow by the day.
To our catalog of greatest hits—‘One shot at a time,’ ‘Take dead aim,’ and ‘Growing the game’—we can now add ‘Not a politician,’ the deflection of choice among professional golfers competing at next month’s Saudi International.
There is much to welcome in the announcement that the purse for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open will increase to $10 million, not least that it’s a rare example of riches being promised professional golfers from sources other than a murderous regime. After years of golf’s great and good proving themselves content to sign expressions of noble sentiment about investing in the women’s game, they are finally signing checks.
The U.S. Women’s Open prize fund is almost doubling from $5.5 million, with a commitment to further raise it to $12 million within five years. The R&A has said the purse for the 2022 AIG Women’s Open will be at least $6.8 million, more than twice what it was just four years ago. And Chevron will boost prize money by 60 percent when it debuts in April as title sponsor of the LPGA’s first major, still fondly known as the Dinah Shore, though it’s had more name changes than Zsa Zsa Gabor (Google her, kids).
But Friday’s blockbuster reveal by the USGA’s CEO, Mike Whan, has implications beyond the bank account of the last-standing lady who leaves Pine Needles with $1.8 million in June. Not least for Whan’s organization itself.
As we balance the ledger for 2021, it seems assured that a handful of the year’s most memorable moments will have impact that extends far beyond the confines of the calendar.
Like Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters win, and its promise of inspiring a generation of Asian talent. Or Phil Mickelson’s improbable major championship victory at age 50, setting a new benchmark for elderly excellence. Or Tiger Woods’ car wreck, which cast in stark relief the impermanence of lives and careers, and which summoned a raw appreciation both for what he has gifted us and for whatever his battered body will permit henceforth.
But 2021 was also a year in which even the most stubborn of ostriches had to lift their heads and concede that golf doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that like every sport it is inextricably entwined with the wider world, and that reminders of this fact are often jarring. The painful lessons we learned in ’21 will not conclude with the demise of December.
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.”
Las Vegas exists to distort reality, whether briefly enough to separate cocksure gamblers from their chip stacks or long enough to market a bejeweled Liberace as every housewife’s dream. So it was with The Match, in which two men who share a genuine antipathy circled each other like a pair of chummy middle managers at a company holiday party, exchanging compliments that made up in diplomacy what they lacked in sincerity, and betraying nothing more belligerent than an eye-roll.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka conducted themselves as any two strangers randomly paired for a Friday game might, piloting separate carts and saying little beyond “Nice putt” and “That’s good.” The last time Vegas witnessed two high-profile men be so taciturn about their common business, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were running the Strip.
A homily popular among PGA Tour members is that they eat only what they kill, and that unlike other athletes they must perform to get paid. It’s never actually been true, at least for the top players—sponsors incentivize excellence, but they don’t withhold payment for missed cuts—and certainly not in this era of the Player Impact Program and the coming guaranteed money events, both of which will compensate regardless of on-course results.
Professional golf is a club whose members can feast on past glories long after they’ve started cashing social security checks. That’s why the PGA Tour Champions exists. It’s an honorarium masquerading as competition. Only the middle and lower ranks of PGA Tour players subsist on what they butcher with birdies. And yet there are some who would see those guys go hungrier still.
The silence that greeted the Ladies European Tour playing in Saudi Arabia this week—at least relative to the censure faced by men who do the same—reflects two realities: the inattention given women’s golf in general and the LET in particular, and the principle that everyone bails water on a sinking ship.
Since it took the Saudis almost 10 years to sign a player to their global golf ambitions, we might have expected someone more compelling than a 66-year-old retiree a quarter-century beyond his prime, whose unquenchable thirst for relevance has been laid (literally) bare-arsed on social media with an undignified frequency.