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.
A consequence of runaway victories in the Ryder Cup is that the post-mortem commences before the deceased has officially even hit the slab, and so it is with the European team that seems likely destined for defeat Sunday at Whistling Straits.
It’s almost awe-inspiring how Patrick Reed can slough off rules controversies with the unruffled disdain that one imagines Uday and Qusay greeted parking tickets in once-upon-a-time Baghdad.
Perhaps a man develops bulletproof confidence in the face of firing squads when he knows others are paid to throw themselves in front of the fusillade. How else to explain the scale of self-assurance that permits a professional golfer to palm his own ball, poke around in the ball mark, declare it was embedded, after it bounced, in 3-inch rough, with only cursory input from playing partners and none from rules officials, on live television, while leading a PGA Tour event.
The incident on the 10th hole at Torrey Pines during Saturday’s CBS broadcast lacked the clarity of Reed’s brazen bunker misadventure in the Bahamas in 2019. The video is inconclusive: viewers couldn’t see if Reed’s ball was in fact embedded, and the rules official wasn’t presented a fair opportunity to make that determination since Reed had already moved it. Less ambiguous is the growing sentiment that Patrick Reed’s relationship to the rules of golf mirrors that of a courtesan to her clothes—as something to occasionally be cloaked in for respectability, but otherwise an impediment to the conduct of business.
By now, PGA Tour executives must feel a gloomy kinship with those anonymous White House officials who regularly insist the President is taking a mature approach on an issue, only to wake to another inflammatory tweet storm from the toilet. For no matter how meticulously the Tour has sought to douse the Patrick Reed conflagration, Reed himself only provides more kindling.
A number of truths became apparent when Golfweek revealed that Reed has engaged a lawyer in an effort to silence Brandel Chamblee, the most prominent critic of his alleged cheating at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas last month.
The familiar rap against golf is that expressions of diversity in our game are limited to wearing unconventional shades of khaki, that it’s a buttoned-up, hidebound world that stubbornly remains the preserve of white, male, affluent, conservative, Christian, heterosexual, country club Republicans with woeful fashion sense.
Admittedly, you can throw a pebble on the PGA Tour and hit someone who ticks all of those boxes — and you wouldn’t have to aim carefully — but like all stereotypes it fails to fully reflect a more nuanced reality. A visit to most golf facilities will reveal people separated by race, gender and umpteen other differences but united by a passion for the game. Golf also has diversity not so readily apparent to the naked eye.
It’s been seven years since Hank Haney rendered himself a fringe voice on the PGA Tour by writing a tell-all book about working with Tiger Woods, and that diminished stature explains the enthusiasm with which so many critics rounded on him after his racially-charged and sexist comments about women’s golf and Asian players on his radio show.
Haney is not the first man, nor even the most prominent, to stain the game with imbecilic guff about race and gender. But the eagerness with which he was publicly denounced — even Woods offered an uncharacteristically terse rebuttal — served to highlight the timorous inconsistency with which our sport tackles third-rail topics, and proved how easy it is to stand on principle against someone with no power and no defenders.
When Rory McIlroy recently answered a routine question about his schedule for 2019, it was treated as golf’s equivalent of Brexit – a shocking and foolhardy distancing from Europe.
“I am starting my year off in the States and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August, and then we will assess from there,” he said. “I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out, and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do.”
McIlroy was speaking at the European Tour’s season-ending event in Dubai and knew he would draw incoming fire for his candor.
“Everyone has to look out for themselves,” he said. “And next year, I’m looking out for me.”
Golf has marketed the virtue of its players for so long that you’d be forgiven for assuming PGA Tour cards come with certificates of moral rectitude.
Until we recently began living under par, “These Guys Are Good” was recited with an almost evangelical fervor. The slogan wasn’t intended to refer only to the quality of play evident on Tour, but also to the not so readily apparent qualities of its members: sportsmanship, humanitarianism, charity.
That branding has two potential snares: Even a trivial divergence from the righteous narrative is magnified, and it denies golf fans the manufactured hatred that thrives in other sports. After all, it’s tough to hate a guy when you only hear about his decency and kindness to puppies.
There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.