In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior golf industry executive wondered aloud about the possibility that a member of the U.S. team might take a knee during the ceremonies to protest racial injustice. It was a laughable notion, since the only issues on which PGA Tour players have been apt to take a stand are slow play and high taxes.
It’s been 25 years since Medalist Golf Club last appeared on national television, when Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf pitted then-world No. 1 Nick Price against Greg Norman, the world No. 2 and founder of the newly opened club.
On May 24, the exclusive Florida enclave hosts another made-for-TV affair with Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning taking on Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.
It was after the 2014 Ryder Cup debacle in Scotland — a week during which Phil Mickelson’s most effective shots came during the losing team’s press conference when he targeted skipper Tom Watson — that the American team decided to crowdsource the captaincy.
The PGA of America created an oft-mocked task force to reverse U.S. fortunes in the biennial event. Another undeclared objective was to ensure that future players wouldn’t be denied hugs or high fives from some grizzled legend who thought the only inspiration they needed was to see the Stars & Stripes run up the pole.
In a week when we couldn’t make our way down a padlocked Magnolia Lane, homebound golf fans had to settle instead for memory lane.
Our guides were familiar broadcast voices, many of them — Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi — long stilled. Golf Channel re-aired the 1986 Masters, the Rosetta Stone of major championships that revealed the Sunday strengths of Jack Nicklaus and the comparative frailties even among Hall of Famers in the generation that followed him. Jack was winning too over on CBS, which gave us the epic ’75 Masters, in which he helped Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller add to what would ultimately be a combined seven silver salvers. More recent Masters tournaments were also dusted off: ’04, when Phil Mickelson broke his duck and Ernie Els’ heart, and ’19, when an approaching storm moved up tee times and saw Tiger Woods secure his fifth green jacket by Sunday lunchtime (his first jacket was pretty much sealed by Sunday lunchtime too, but that’s another story).
The retro weekend broadcasts — in addition to the Masters YouTube channel, which contains every final round dating back to 1968 — were a welcome fix for quarantined golf junkies who are otherwise denied until November by the COVID-19 crisis. But for me, two streams diverged in a locked down New York City apartment, and I took the one less clicked upon, at least in April. I opted for the only major tournament we know for certain won’t be played this year.
The Open Championship website has every official film since 1970 — Jack won that year too, of course — and it’s a delightful reservoir of the quaint and the quirky. In my quarantine viewing I elected to skip more recent Opens that remain reasonably fresh in the mind, despite the ample wine intake necessary to stomach small town British food those weeks. It’s earlier Opens, those from the ’70s and ’80s, that offer beguiling glimpses of a time when even major golf was less corporate, and pleasant reminders of players long forgotten because they’re either dead or just not brand-building on InstaGrift.
The only item on a menu is always in high demand, so it’s a sign of our times that even a picky gourmand will greedily consume another manufactured McNuggets offering that sees Tiger and Phil impersonate actual rivals for those of us willing to trade nourishment for entertainment.
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.
It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.
The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.
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.
Alpha dog athletes don’t rely solely upon the tools of their trade to stake out their territory. A well-timed gesture or pointed comment can be just as corrosive to the confidence of rivals as any excellence in the arena. Roger Federer was a master of it, sometimes congratulating a victorious opponent for having played the match of his life (translation: you had to play the match of your life to beat me!). Tiger Woods is golf’s greatest practitioner of psych ops, so he’s unlikely to have missed Brooks Koepka’s exquisite mastery of the dark art at Bethpage Black.
Not that pre-tournament press conference, during which he declared majors easier to win than regular PGA Tour events. No, Koepka’s alpha doggedness was on display in subtle drone strikes targeting Woods himself.
It was a glistening, 420-horsepower Cadillac Escalade that ferried John Daly to the distant 10th tee at Bethpage Black Thursday afternoon, and a mud-spattered, 3.3 horsepower electric cart that he pointed down the fairway to begin his opening round in the 101st PGA Championship. His ride, like his career, a faded carbon of what it once was.
A man who quickly swaps vehicles deep in the Long Island woods might fall under suspicion of doing something illegal, but in the case of Daly it was merely something unsporting. And unsurprising.
It’s doubtful Cicero had the PGA Tour’s pace of play policy in mind when he wrote “The more laws, the less justice,” but his pithy philosophy is no less applicable. The Tour’s code runs four pages and is a masterclass in authoring rules designed to be unenforceable.
Consider the particulars. Players are permitted 40-50 seconds to play their shots depending on the order of play in a group, but exceeding that limit doesn’t incur a bad time. For a group to be officially considered out of position they not only have to exceed the allotted time to play a shot but also reach a hole that is open and free of play. Only then does a group go on the clock. The punishment for that bad time is, well, nothing. A second bad time earns a one-stroke penalty, the third gets two. A DQ only comes at four. The fines levied are so meager as to be meaningless.
The most imbecilic mind on Tour would struggle to parse the policy but not to manipulate it.
On the second Sunday in April every year, Augusta National feels less like a golf course than an operating table, upon which men are laid bare and probed for frailties not readily apparent to the naked eye. And no facility in the world does a more thorough job of diagnosing a faint heart, a deficit of intestinal fortitude, an absence of daring.
Those aren’t ailments that will appear on an X-ray or a doctor’s chart, but the final round of the Masters routinely exposes each and every one of them.
Of course, the recent vulnerabilities of Tiger Woods have been more obvious: physical injury, swing woes, personal turmoil — each a test more daunting than anything Amen Corner can pose. By comparison, the crucible of the back nine on Sunday afternoon at the Masters must have seemed a welcome relief.
The criteria for selecting U.S. Ryder Cup captains often has seemed to magnify qualities that are barely relevant to the task, emphasizing personal achievements of an individual over personality attributes that might galvanize a team.
Twenty-eight men have led America into competition since Walter Hagen commanded the first team in Massachusetts in 1927. Every single one of those 28 captains won a major championship during his career. A winning record as a Ryder Cup player once mattered too, but that was when points were easier to come by for Americans. It’s not so important these days since the U.S. record over the last three decades has impoverished the résumés of most candidates for the captaincy.
For Ricky Elliott, 2018 ended much as it began: going downhill fast.
In December, that meant a maiden ski trip to Colorado. January hadn’t been as much fun for Elliott, the longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka. Just a few holes into the year in Hawaii, a wrist injury benched his man for three months.
“It was worrying. I honestly thought if we could play at all this year it would be a bonus,” Elliott said. “It was one of those dark areas where there was no timetable on his comeback. It was a long period of not knowing if you’re going to have a job. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.”
Only in the city that promoted Mayweather-McGregor as a fair fight and Liberace as a sex symbol could Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be considered rivals. “The Match” is fresh evidence that Las Vegas can distort any reality just long enough to separate a rube from his billfold.