The last decade or so has seen a crucial change in the image of golf. Gone are the stuffy blazers (both literally and metaphorically) and in their place we’ve had Ian Poulter’s hair, fashionable outfits, more relaxed policies and the sense that golf is moving with the times. Personally, I love all the old-fashioned stuff but I understand that won’t attract the next generation and I certainly welcome the game modernising where it needs to in order to secure a healthy future.
And surely that’s central to the remit of the governing bodies, but recent events make me wonder if they’ve lost the plot. To my mind, the health of the game isn’t helped when the powers-that-be seem bent on generating negative headlines. In recent weeks we’ve seen them brush a drugs violation under the carpet (and now face being sued by the perpetrator); twice impose the rules with rather dodgy and weak explanations, and demonstrate their continued support of a golf club that’s comfortable in this day and age with being openly discriminatory. And that’s before mentioning the debate surrounding the ‘anchoring’ of a putter and the modernisations of some of our most sacred courses.
Where do I start?! Right, in reverse order….
To my mind, the last two points are both a case of bolting the gate after the proverbial horse has bolted. Equipment has been ‘shrinking’ courses for at least 20 years and long putters were around long before Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship (and Ernie won The Open and Adam, The Masters, to help turn up the heat). I know I have the benefit of hindsight but had the governing bodies nipped these equipment developments in the bud, then we wouldn’t be having to back-track now. Can you imagine the MCC allowing a bat that made Lords obsolete, suggesting instead that the ground be enlarged? No, they’d simply ban the bat. OK, action is belatedly being taken, but more feathers are being ruffled and the fall out will be greater than it ever needed to be.
Next up, The Open. Muirfield is a great course, and the R&A state that they base the choice of Open Championship venue on the quality of course and the tradition of The Open rota, but it’s impossible for an outsider to see the choice of a men-only golf club as anything but a sign of golf’s stuffy attitudes and prejudices. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical that the R&A can look to grow the ladies game while supporting a men-only club where they can ask them to modify the course to keep up with the times, but can’t ask them to modify their membership policy? With Augusta’s admission of two lady members helping to resolve the controversy in the US, there’s even more pressure this year on the R&A.
In truth, there are several single sex golf clubs in the UK (some exclusively for women), and golf isn’t unique as a bastion of tradition in this regard, but the R&A has a choice; that’s the point. And they wonder why so few young women play golf!
Moving on, what of Vijay Singh’s drugs admission and subsequent lawsuit with the PGA Tour? The Tour had the perfect opportunity to take a firm stance on drugs at the first high profile opportunity and they blew it. And this only a short while before golf will take its bow as an Olympic sport.
OK, Vijay’s crime was hardly that of Lance Armstrong, but it’s all about perception and modernity. Greg Norman for one has described golf’s anti-doping procedures as “disgraceful” and says he wants blood testing introduced by the sport’s governing bodies. Perhaps golf is squeaky clean, but then again perhaps it’s not. It would be naive to think that golf is beyond reproach (you only have to look at the physique of most modern professional players these days to see that their fitness matters), so let’s act before there’s an issue and implement a robust policy in line with other sports. Taking a tough line on those who are proven or admit to taking a banned substance, however defensible, wouldn’t hurt either.
As for the recent rules violations at The Masters, what a joke! First came the decision to penalise 14 year old Guan Tianlang for slow play. Warn him, fair enough, and I have no issue with penalising players guilty of slow play, but singling him out as the lone culprit in an otherwise guiltless field was ludicrous and smacked of bullying. Guan’s inexperience cost him, as seasoned professionals know how to play it when they are put ‘on the clock’, but can you really tell me he was the only player at fault on a day that rounds were taking over six hours to complete?
Head-scratcher number two, involved you-know-who. Tiger’s tribulations begun with a slice of incredible bad luck, hitting the pin with an almost-perfect approach and spinning back in to the water. But then he chose not to consult a rules official and dropped his ball incorrectly. Not penalised during the round, he then signed for an incorrect score – disqualification. The PGA cited Rule 33.7 (or The Tiger Rule, as now known) and the fact that the infringement was recognised before Tiger had finished the round. But this was all about issuing a ‘get out of jail free’ card to the world’s number one golfer and biggest draw in the game. It was all about TV audiences and sponsors’ money; anyone else would have been packing their bags, I am certain of it.
Then came the question of Tiger’s withdrawal. Personally I thought he should – and what a gilt-edged opportunity to show off the ‘new’ Tiger – but, that said, I do understand that Tiger felt he’d been duly punished (the misfortune in the first place must have still grated) and no doubt his obligations to sponsors would have affected his decision too. The blame lay with the PGA – here was an opportunity to show some lenience to a 14 year old and prove that the game and its rules will always be bigger than its biggest star and any commercial pressures. Instead they bullied a 14 year old boy and showed that Tiger is the boss. Hardly the stuff to inspire a new generation of golfers!
So with all of this in mind, would it be too ridiculous to suggest that the governing bodies are successfully portraying golf as a game that: doesn’t punish drugs cheats; rewards inequality; discourages kids from playing the game; creates rules to accommodate particular players; and is happy to butcher the very home of the sport in the interests of commercially hungry manufacturers? If it is, I worry about the future.