The most jarring revelation of the last 24 hours wasn’t that the PGA Tour will now reward its most prominent players regardless of performance, but that a sport hitherto known as a citadel of conservative capitalism actually harbors a wealth of socialist sentiment. How else to explain the convulsive reaction when Golfweek revealed the existence — previously unannounced by the Tour — of the Player Impact Program, which will dispense $40 million in bonuses to 10 stars deemed to have most moved the needle in terms of fan engagement?
On social media (always a reliable indicator of the broader world), a remarkable number of golf fans who usually genuflect at the altar of Adam Smith were apoplectic at the idea of wealthy players receiving money for such nebulous reasons, dollars that could be used to benefit the greater good, whether boosting purses in the minor leagues, rehiring Tour employees laid off during the pandemic or otherwise growing the game. In short, anything except further swelling Rickie Fowler’s already tumescent bank account.
Who knew it was so easy to convert the “up-by-the-bootstraps” brigade into Bernie bros?
Among the plentiful clichés permeating golf commentary, there is none more kindly yet bromidic than the assertion that a slumping star will win again simply because he or she is too good not to. It’s a polite fiction, peddled about almost every prominent professional who achieved early success only to plunge into, if not obscurity, then at least irrelevance. As analysis, it lies somewhere between sentimentality and sycophancy, but nowhere close to sound.
Golf’s recent run of resurrections began—appropriately enough, for those particular to the low-hanging fruit such narratives represent—on Easter Sunday, when Jordan Spieth won the Valero Texas Open for his first victory in almost four years. A week later, Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters triumph ended a drought of similar duration. And on Saturday, Lydia Ko completed the trifecta (or trinity) with a seven-stroke romp at the LPGA’s Lotte Championship after three years wandering the desert in search of a title.
Welcome to the only week of the year when the PGA Tour’s ardent free-marketeers develop a sudden appreciation for a safety net from the authorities. Specifically, the free passes issued for the first round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the day on which so many stars used to be dispatched early.
Now Wednesday’s losers live to fight another day. I blame Hunter Mahan and Victor Dubuisson.
It’s in the arbitrary nature of sport that even legends seldom exit the stage on a high note.
There are exceptions, sure.
Ted Williams homered in his last at-bat. Pete Sampras went home with the U.S. Open trophy. Lorena Ochoa quit as No. 1 in the world.
More often, great careers peter out with a ground ball like Babe Ruth’s, a series of increasingly disappointing results that finally force a reckoning with the passage of time. Those are the good endings. Others are involuntary, authored by injury or accident. Like that of Maureen Connolly, who won nine Grand Slams but saw her career end with a horse-riding accident at age 19, two weeks after winning her third straight Wimbledon singles title.
When news emerged about Tiger Woods’ car crash on Tuesday there was a clear and immediate delineation between Woods the man and Woods the golfer, with much of the focus rightly on the former and his physical well-being. An absence of detailed information about his condition, married to the visual of catastrophic damage to his vehicle, ensured that human concern was front and center.
As the day wore achingly on, that angle grew incrementally more positive with news that his injuries were not life-threatening. One could heave a sigh of relief for Woods the man.
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.
When historians eventually tally the cost of the Donald Trump era, the manifold indecencies of which culminated in Wednesday’s sacking of the United States Capitol during a failed insurrection, golf will not be counted among its casualties.
The game will instead be portrayed as Trump’s refuge, something he did while ignoring a pandemic that has claimed 365,000 lives, refusing to acknowledge a resounding electoral defeat, and inciting feeble-minded fascists to violence that left five people dead at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
That’s the best case scenario.
The alternative? That a sport which prides itself on values like honesty, integrity and devotion to the rules will be characterized as a welcoming sanctuary for a brazen and amoral insurrectionist, a world in which a racist con man was never discomfited, even while taking a wrecking ball to the constitution and the rule of law.
Oftentimes, the most revealing number in a professional golfer’s ledger isn’t one found among the many Strokes Gained categories, those statistics that speak to fairways, greens and putts, but not to a man’s drive, devotion or distractions. With the enigma that is Rickie Fowler, the most illuminating figure is this: 11 years into his career, he has more commercial sponsors than PGA Tour victories.
And it’s not even close.
There was a period when Fowler’s ample screen time on Sunday afternoons was earned through his fine play. Now that time is paid for by a seemingly endless parade of partners confident that Fowler can help them sell everything from insurance and automobiles to mortgages and underwear. It’s the Arnold Palmer business model, and more power to Fowler for leveraging it so astutely. But at what cost to his career?
The asterisk is sport’s scarlet letter, an otherwise benign symbol that when appended suggests a specific achievement is, at best, diminished and, at worst, outright tainted.
Some asterisks are warranted, of course. The name of Mark McGwire* should never appear without one. But not all asterisks are used to denote accomplishments earned by dishonorable means. Some are deployed more as a means to highlight quirks of fate or the foibles of others.
My personal favorite belongs to a horse called Foinavon, which won Britain’s Grand National, in 1967. Every other horse running was involved in a pile-up at the 23rd fence (of 30), providing the jockey riding Foinavon – a long-shot that had been trailing badly – ample time to navigate the melee and cruise to a 15-length victory.
Too frequently these days, asterisks are just churlish attempts to detract from high achievement for the sake of cheap debate. Like the one some critics gleefully attach to Roger Federer’s lone victory at Roland Garros in 2009 because he didn’t beat Rafa Nadal on his way to the trophy. Similarly junky efforts are occasionally evident in golf too.
Every sport needs a Tom Brady, an Alex Rodriguez, a Kevin Garnett—athletes whose accomplishments win the admiration of some but whose acts and attitudes earn the loathing of many.
Hate figures supply one of the main arteries in sports fandom, permitting us to really savor those moments when karma kicks them in the teeth. It’s not a noble sentiment worthy of the Olympic Creed, but disasters inflicted on antagonists bring almost as much joy as the triumphs of heroes.
It’s one of life’s more reliable axioms that if a man has to tell you he’s a good dude, there’s a fair chance he is actually an insufferable gobshite.
During Saturday’s third round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, Bryson DeChambeau — who prides himself on seeing things the rest of us simply cannot grasp — took issue with a camera operator for, well, operating a camera. On the 7th hole, the surly pseudoscientist hit a mediocre greenside bunker shot and angrily threw his club — manufactured by Cobra and available from all good stockists — into the sand. After marking his ball —brought to you by Bridgestone — he had a testy exchange with a camera operator who captured this, before storming to the 8th tee in a pair of stylish Puma shoes.
For some PGA Tour players, the cancellation of the Players Championship after one round was a minor travel inconvenience, one easily resolved with a call to the pilot or a short road trip home down the coast to Jupiter, Florida. It was a little more troublesome for one player with a rented Ford Expedition, a two-year-old passenger and a home in Irvine, Calif.
Brendan Steele was in a hotel room with his wife, Anastassia, and their daughter Victoria when he received a text from the Tour that Thursday night saying the Players was being called. The couple scrambled to book flights home to California, and by Friday morning they were on I-95 to Orlando airport bound for Los Angeles. After 15 minutes on the road, doubts crept it.
For everything that has been denied golf fans in this period of quarantine—access to courses for many, the Masters for all, freedom from Peloton updates for an unlucky few— one thing remains soothingly constant among the social media commentariat: begrudgery.
That much was evident with the news that former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will join Tiger Woods and Marion Hollins in the next class to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. The announcement was greeted with griping that was as predictable as it is tedious, an exercise in collective eye-rolling intended to suggest not only that Finchem is undeserving but that his inclusion dilutes the Hall’s credibility.
Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.
The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.
Most of the 121 men in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are judged by a straightforward metric: a scorecard that documents the ebb and flow of their work day. Global brands — whether a corporation or an individual athlete — are measured against more complex and fluid standards, like the company they keep, the actions they take, the conscience they evidence.
These are not benchmarks against which golf has traditionally fared well. Until Thursday.
In the first round at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy opened with a round of 66 that amply demonstrated his celebrated skill as a player. What followed established him as a leader.
As cris de coeur go, Premier Golf League’s opening salvo sounded less passionate than petulant. The proposed rival circuit to the PGA Tour sent its first tweet on Friday, one that included an audacious appeal to individualism given that it is partly financed by a regime that dismembers free thinkers.
“Nobody owns golf,” the message read. “Golf is owned by everyone who enjoys it, watches it, and thinks about it – in other words, you. #PGL”
As an implicit call to arms against the reign of King Jay of Ponte Vedra, it fell flat. But that idea of ownership – not of the game, but of the players –explains why the League’s CEO, Andrew Gardiner, has finally moved into the open to speak publicly. He was on a salvage operation after Rory McIlroy holed the entire concept below the waterline earlier in the week.