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?

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DJ Rules

I’m just going to assume that you’ve read Bamberger and Diaz by now and get right to the point, because if I wait any longer London might go and tell, I don’t know, Canada to find its own Head of State already, sending the Internet into yet another tizzy and pushing an arcane rules debate in a little played or watched sport further into oblivion.

devicenzo

Now as good as these journalists are — and they’re certainly the only two left wasting their talents on this golf thing that understand nuance — they both leave out a critical point regarding the latest US Open at the once venerable, but now diminished, Oakmont Country Club. Or, are at least unable to come out and say what they want to directly, perhaps because of the personal and professional obligations that go along with working for esteemed, but similarly decimated, media conglomerates.

Before we get to that, let’s just accept that there’s really only one controversy here, and that’s over the timing of the penalty. Even the millennial crowd, which proved constitutionally unable to resist the urge to wail loudly and publicly about the injustice of it all, were more taken aback by the uncertainty of the matter than the possibility of Dustin Johnson losing a stroke. Actually, that sentence is a bit unfair to the hipster set, because the lauded (for not being Greg Norman) 50-somethings fronting Fox’s telecast too became increasingly cranky over the lingering indecision. For that matter, even Big Jack zeroed in on this point.

And at first blush, this reaction seems reasonable. This was no Kent Island Invitational; they were contesting the US freaking Open here. A tournament that has antagonized the greatest of players, regardless of their records. Ben (how did I not win more?) Arnold (how did I only win one??) and Sam (how did I not win any???) all brooded on the event to the end. In what other sport are referees, or their equivalents, paralyzed? Make a call. Penalize the leader for the ball’s rotation and move on. A stupid rule, perhaps, but no worse than a dozen others in the book. What’s all this nonsense about waiting to look at the video at the end of the round?

Well, there was a time when honor meant more than score.

Players have been ostracized, for life, for questionable rules incidents. Gary Player has won 9 majors (he’d be the first to tell you) but, among those in the know, he’s remembered more as a guy you had to watch like hawk lest he fluff up a ball in the rough. Vijay Singh is a legitimate Hall of Famer but will never shake the fact that he once put a 3 instead of a 4 (or whatever it was) on his card at an obscure Asian Tour event in the 1980s. Bob Toski is bitter to this day because of accusations that he better positioned his ball while re-marking it on the green. To some, Ernie Els’s first US Open will always have an asterisk. And Tiger lost the game’s elite not over infidelity but after he big-shotted his way to an entitled drop en route to his second Players Championship.

Now, as Bamberger says more directly than Diaz, the USGA, by issuing the penalty, would have been calling Johnson out. Golf is a game of honor, yes, but we don’t trust yours. You moved the ball. Or most likely did. We can’t let you get away with it. And, frankly, it’s disconcerting that you’re not coming to this conclusion on your own.

At the same time, the USGA knew very well the implications of overruling DJ and calling the penalty. It would have meant adding him to the list above. It would have meant writing the second line of his obituary. You scoff? It doesn’t take much to sully a guy’s honor in the absurd world of professional golf. God only knows whether Toski moved his ball forward or if Gary Player improved his lie a few times over the course of 10,000 rounds. It doesn’t matter. In golf, the accusation itself is the scarlet letter. You don’t overcome it. Guilt is secondary. Actually, it’s irrelevant.

Perhaps alone in knowing the gravity of the situation—DJ and the whingers fleeing western Pennsylvania in their private jets with their iPhones at the ready, certainly didn’t—the USGA was not going to contradict the dullard’s explanation and impose the penalty on the spot. No, they were going to give the honorable Mr. Johnson every opportunity to make the right call on his own. After the round, away from the heat of the moment. Ironically, the USGA was trying to protect him. How quaint of the blue coats to judge a competitor’s reputation to be more important, say, than playing a few holes of one round not knowing if you’re leading by two strokes or one.

In effect the USGA, by delaying the penalty, decided to put Johnson’s integrity over the integrity of the championship.

Well, that is, if you’re in the camp that finds it inconceivable to even consider playing a round of golf not knowing the exact score of the other 144 guys in the field at every moment. In fact, I think such a stipulation might be in the rules. Or at least the Hadith. Thou shalt knoweth the leader’s position in relation to par at ALL TIMES (emphasis added by Sam Snead.)