Just Win, Baby…

“No, no. It’s totally on me. I’ve been a professional almost seven years now and it’s unconscionable that I thought I could get away with that. Let’s face it; I should have been disqualified. And I would have been had the USGA not caved a year or so ago after some other rules-related “fiasco” that’s already been forgotten by everyone. I just hope that I can someday regain the trust of my fellow competitors…”

If the string theory crowd is correct, somewhere in the universe a few weeks ago a statuesque overhyped golfer uttered words to that effect after being caught blatantly cheating in one of the four biggest female golf tournaments of the year.

Perhaps somewhere, but certainly not in North America in the 21st century.

No, here, the Honorable Justice Scalia has won, unequivocally. The majority rules, and any virtue that exists only does so to the extent the majority deems it to. Yes, this is our reality, albeit one with a twist.

The first is that the majority is not deciding anything. It’s more like a perverse minority, those demented enough to spend their energy railing away milliseconds after an “incident” on whatever social media platform matters most at that particular point in time. “He who tweets the first, with the most venom, wins” is our undisputed guiding principle. The pen remains mightier than the sword, true, but your pen damn well better beat others to the draw and avoid anything approaching nuance.

Now, uninformed and ankle-deep knee-jerk reactions certainly aren’t new. Radio and television were both more revolutionary than the Internet on this score. But there’s no longer any governor. Authority has abdicated, powerless to the whims of the idiocracy. Everything is now decided by instant referendum.

Sadly, the currency of our time is public perception and even a whiff of controversy is fatal; there is no entity—certainly no corporation, nor even ostensible nonprofit organization as you’ll see below—able or willing to stand up to it. Perversely, the megaphone that is the Internet has actually stifled speech. Not to mention thought.

But I digress.

Back to that blond golfer, the one on this planet in 2017. My opening was unfair; the “c” word is golf’s scarlet letter; it would take an ubermensch to be able to choke out such a statement in our space and time. In fact, as apologies goes, Lexi Thompson’s wasn’t the worst. The “I don’t know why; I didn’t mean to” she mumbled a few weeks later at least acknowledged reality. It certainly beats the “no, I don’t see it; it didn’t happen that way at all” variety, which the best golfer of our time likes to cling to when confronted.

Lexi’s reaction to this brouhaha though is the least interesting of everyone involved. Well, aside from the “hells yeah we’re all still pissed off about it!” emanating from her American cohorts. Angry about a competitor coming a hairs breath from winning after being caught redhanded? Don’t be naive…

Mike Whan, by most accounts the best thing to happen to the women’s tour since Jan Stephenson, also followed formula, barking about the impact of this tiny tempest on the LPGA “brand.”

Even the USGA’s Mike Davis, as principled an individual there is in the game, wasn’t immune. The “optics”—a star, in tears, the unfairness of it all—were too much. A not-for-profit organization that went 100 + years without a rule change instituted one in two weeks.

Frankly, the only interesting reactions to this entire episode came from two aging male golfers.

The 47 year-old went first.

Phil Mickelson’s nickname, on the face of it, seems harsh, particularly given his profile as an affable everyman. But it is not unfair; he does think—no, he knows—that he’s the smartest guy in the room. And he loves nothing more than showing it off.

Phil, understandably exacerbated by coverage of l’affair Lexi, came into Augusta ready to blow the cover off the myth; golf, that singular game of honor, so different from all others, has it’s own ball scuffing problem.

Any high school golfer can tell you that every foursome includes at least one player who’ll move his or her ball on the green to get an edge. Or, even more common, in the rough to improve a lie. I’m sure the percentage drops in college, but not by much.

What Phil wanted the world to know is that the problem persists at the highest level, and not just among the Fijians on tour.

Years earlier, Jack Nicklaus had been adorned by a similarly jealous set of peers with the same nickname as Phil. Well, minus the vulgarity that has steeped into the culture, but the point was the same. Jack was, and is, a know it all.

Jack has hid this well though in his years as an elder statesman. Phil seems to have made some progress here too, showing remarkable self control when given the opening to tee off on Ms. Thompson. But no, he held off, and he even avoided laughing, spitting, or winking when parroting the party line, “she should be given the trophy.”

Jack said he was “confused” by Lexi’s explanation, but was not quite able or willing to drop the hammer on a 22 year old. He showed no hesitation in raising Phil in unmasking the problem, dropping a bombshell of his own regarding the President’s Cup (as an aside, how the name of that unfortunate player hasn’t yet gotten out in this environment I’ll never know.) Jack’s tone was the most instructive part of the press conference; no longer “the aww shucks, I’m just grateful people still are interested in hearing me” old pro, Jack had reverted to total teacher mode. Al Gore would have been proud.

So where are we now?

The USGA rule change, on one level, appears sensible. Anything limiting the role of technology in sport is an unequivocal step in the right direction, and the HD revolution has brought an absurd degree of precision to golf’s first commandment — to play the ball where it lies. If there’s reason to doubt that the naked eye would pick up some subtle movement—one with no impact on the outcome of a stroke—by all means wave off the 300 lbs basement-dwelling Calvinists watching with the network phone numbers at the ready.

The Davis change though does nothing to address Whan’s problem, the brand problem. Those pesky “optics” that mar one’s q score. Under the new rule, officials are given considerable leeway in deeming whether or not to wave away evidence of a misstep, and one would expect considerable pressure to be put on said referees to let someone of Lexi’s status slide, evidence be damned.

And this gets at the most disturbing aspect of this entire incident.

Only those hopeless enough to watch the LPGA on a regular basis would know this, but not too long ago that tour was confronted with the exact same situation. A golfer blatantly mis-marked and replaced her ball. Like Lexi (and all those other high school, college, and PGA Tour golfers) either to avoid an indentation or a spike mark. Or, if you want to be kind, suffering from a similar brain cramp.

Like Lexi too, the referendum was held, and the verdict was immediate and unequivocal. But unlike Lexi, she was deemed guilty. Her fate was straight out of a Shirley Jackson novella. She quickly withdrew and is whispered about to this day.

Why the difference?

Well she’s not American, for one. She probably doesn’t speak much English. She’s not tall, or blonde. She wasn’t deemed a star at age 12. If you’ve seen a golf channel promo centered on Chella Choi, you’d be the first.

Of course golf isn’t supposed to be fair, and life has never been thus. But there was a sense that the rules, in this game, were the same for all. Well, as long as you’re not named Tiger. Count ‘em up at the end and see who wins.

Alas, not anymore. What power, you have, at your fingertips now… Isn’t it grand?

Dance with the one who brung ya…

The Golf Channel, or perhaps Hertz or Pennzoil or whatever equipment company was paying him at the time, ran a commercial awhile back in which Arnold Palmer urged us all to be true to our swing, while providing a reminder that his wasn’t exactly textbook. Stop worrying about how you look and go get it, the King commanded.

This may or may not be great advice for the hacker brigade, but one suspects it’s a rule to live by for those that have ascended to the major leagues of professional golf. And an absolute fatwa for the true elite in the game.

Pete Cowen, the best teacher no one knows, said as much in a recent Golf Digest interview:

“When a player has success, there’s always a voice that whispers they can be even better if they make this one change. It can be disastrous, but Louis (Oosthuizen) never heard that voice.”

World #1 Lydia Ko, unsatisfied with the 14 wins and 2 major championships her swing has brought her in the first 19 years of her life, apparently has heard said voice, however.

Per the Daily Mail, she made the following remark while discussing her work with her new coach, Gary Gilchrist:

‘I tried a few lessons with him (Gilchrist) and we ripped the swing apart. I think that was really important and it’s been good to see the changes we’ve made.’

Now, I’d like to blame the golf media’s elevation of the Faldo-Leadbetter (ironically Lydia’s last coach) partnership into myth for this scourge, but Cowen implies such swing changes are a siren to those seeking perfection, in a game in which it doesn’t exist.

At the end of the day, Lydia and Gilchrist certainly understand the swing and the game better than the arm chair quarterbacks on the Internet. And the quote itself may be a reach; Lydia later appears to walk back the drastic nature of the changes she is implementing.

Nevertheless, Lydia and co may do well to spend a moment mulling the wisdom of the Cowen interview. And perhaps keep in mind that for every Faldo-esque transformation — and it’s important to remember that the man had already won a British Open with that crappy swing of his and we’ll never know the counterfactual had he persisted with it — there are a dozen Ian Baker Finches out there stuck in limbo…