Does Golf Need More Feuds?

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Tiger Woods's caddie has publicly turned against him. Could this kind of drama be good for golf?

tiger woods stephen williams 615.jpg

Tiger Woods and now-former caddie Steve Williams in 2002

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), talk about golf's milquetoast image and whether it needs some scuffing-up.


Hey, guys,

SIZZLING NEWS from the golf world as Tiger Woods and former caddie Steve Williams's post-breakup sniping turns ugly! After Williams's new client, Adam Scott, won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the disgruntled Kiwi said it was the best week of his 33-year career and took a few more digs at Tiger in the post-match press conference...

Oh, sorry guys. I fell asleep.

The non-spat highlights one of golf's 21st-century image problems—not enough quality feuds. Sports have always been a fertile ground for held grudges and creative trash-talking. Just look at Shaq vs. Kobe, Billy Martin vs. George Steinbrenner (bonus points for being part of the same franchise), McEnroe vs. Connors, and any number of famous feuds. While some of the sniping was lame (Kobe vs. Bruce Bowen), and some of it contrived by the media (Jeter vs. A-Rod), simmering, nasty relationships make for quality sports viewing the same way that "Flavor of Love" makes for can't-miss television.

Meanwhile, golf's "spats" look more like this. Perhaps because of its genteel roots or its depersonalized setup—golfers are competing against the course as much as their opponents, after all—the sport has just not bred a lot of nasty invective. The few controversies that have occurred in recent years have either been lame (the "Tiger Who?" hat worn by Vijay Singh's caddie) or uncomfortably racist (Fuzzy Zoeller).

Ironically, golf's lack of macho posturing actually makes me like it more. But I'm one of the dwindling minority of Americans that actually enjoys watching the game on television. Give me a cut seven-iron over water to a back right pin placement or a downhill, double-breaking 30-foot putt any day—that's scintillating to me. But for everyone who puts on golf when they want to take a nap, the dearth of good old-fashioned nasty rivalries just accentuates just how boring the sport is to them.

Patrick, are you yearning for a real PGA Tour spat?

–Jake

Jake,

Golf doesn’t suffer from a lack of macho posturing. It’s just slightly sublimated. See stogies, cart girls and, well, topless cart girls. Plus the fixation on length. And shaft technology. And getting in the hole! Really, you could make the case that golf is the mas macho of sports, at least symbolically, less a good walk spoiled than a Freudian case study with azaleas.

But I digress.

Fact is, the sport labors under a corporate mindset. The taken-for-granted notion that once you enter the office&Mdash;or step onto a golf course&Mdash;the normal rules of interpersonal relationships do not apply. As in: Be a pro. Have class. Leave your petty grudges, burning jealousies and deep, everlasting desire to curb stomp that jackass from accounting in the clubhouse. Check your emotions; sublimate your humanity; fall into line; be a company man or woman, a no-drama cog in a frictionless machine. All of which is admirable, I guess. Assuming you’re Vulcan.

For the rest of us, it’s absurdly ridiculous. Or maybe just ridiculously absurd.

Take the tiff between Woods and Williams. In the golf world—a land of sportsmanship and rules and unicorns—the caddy’s longtime practice of snarling at Woods’ galleries and tossing spectators’ cameras into lakes was A-OK. Par for the course, even. But to take a few relatively mild, passive-aggressive public swipes at his former boss, who recently gave him a decidedly unceremonious heave-ho? Total decorum breach. Caddies aren’t supposed to feel. Or talk. Have you no shame, sir?

Then again, if Williams was sitting at a bar – and talking about an ex-girlfriend that mistreated and dumped him – you’d probably buy him a round. Or at least acknowledge that he had a right to feel both bitter and vindicated.

Indeed, one of the great things about other sports—where the corporate-like omerta is still strong, but not all encompassing—is that genuine emotions leak out. All the time, actually. And they aren't considered occasion to catch the vapors. Instead, they often function in theatrical fashion, as cathartic, entertaining proxies for our own familiar conflicts and conundrums. Remember last summer’s Shuttle ConeGate showdown between then-Washington lineman Albert Haynesworth and coach Mike Shanahan?

At the time, most Redskins fans saw Haynesworth as akin to the lazy grumbler at their office, the guy not pulling his (literal and metaphoric) weight. Me? I saw Haynesworth as a champion—albeit a really, really fat champion—for the kind of labor-management leverage most of us dream about. Either way, the tête-à-tête resonated in a way that typical training camp injury reports don’t, and was a heck of a lot more entertaining than anything Haynesworth did on the field.

As such, I submit that the PGA Tour needs more than spats. It needs jerks. Honest, public ones. Hampton, are you with me?

–Patrick

So, all you guys are saying, really, is that golf needs a little more personality, right? The players—and even (gasp!) the lowly caddies—should open up more, put their personalities on display. They should feel free to talk a little smack in the media, and maybe even do a little hot-dogging on the links. Chi-Chi did it.

Riiiiiiiight. Gee. That's a super idea, fellas. Pay no attention to these syringes I'm filling with sedatives, nor to those men in white suits sneaking up behind you.

Pardon the psychological jargon, but are you freakin' nuts?

Oh, sure. If there's one thing that the sports world needs, it's more jerks and narcissists. The country is desperately, desperately short of pampered, self-congratulatory, athletes who live out every, petty emotion on camera. You nailed it, guys. That's the whole problem with big-time sports today—there's just too darn much dignity, humility and quiet grace.

At the risk of revealing my inner-Andy Rooney: No, no, and a thousand times no. It's bad enough to see sports become ever more TMZ-ified, without being asked to cheerlead for the process. Sure, spectator sports are a kind of theater. As such, they do much more than merely provide catharsis. That is, a football game is about way, way more than just getting a little Primal Scream therapy on the cheap. Sports show us the values our society finds important, and they are an utterly vital, ancient way of transmitting those values to rising generations. Like, for example, the ideas that it's important to win with humility and lose with grace. We need more of that—in every sport—not less. And we certainly need it, maybe most of all, in golf.

In other words, we need more sublimating. We need more tamping down of that savage beast within us all, more of that mental process by which the energy behind socially unacceptable impulses (like wanting to bash a competitor's skull with a 9-iron) is consciously transformed into more socially constructive acts (like shaking his hand and saying "Good game").

Does golf need charismatic stars? Of course. Always. The PGA, at bottom, is in the entertainment business. But I simply refuse to believe that being an entertaining athlete and being a gentleman can't co-exist. For me, in fact, they must. On the day that sportsmanship no longer matters in sports, the games themselves will no longer matter to me.

Emma... Please, don't tell me I'm wrong.

–Hampton

None of you are wrong, but my god, you are all very male. That's OK! But let me point this out: we've gone 1,000-plus words assuming that the term "golf" only encompasses "men," "gentlemen," and some iteration of "sportsmanship." The only women that have been mentioned are "topless cart girls" and Steve Williams' imaginary ex-girlfriend. I am not here to attempt to argue that Yani Tseng has the personality of Charles Barkley or that Paula Creamer could have her own talk show. But I do find it fascinating that "golf" is so inflated with a long tradition of masculine gentility that it changes the way we talk about it, and not just who watches it.

When I was a kid, my dad often commandeered the TV on weekends so that he could watch golf tournaments. He always invited me to watch, and I'd always sit impatiently for 5-10 minutes before loudly complaining about the pace and then bolting off to find another distraction. Years later, when I visited a friend who was studying at St. Andrews, I spent a day walking around the tiny town and inevitably found myself at the golf club. Or rather, outside of the golf club. I'm still not allowed in.

I don't watch golf, and I think the majority of sports fans not already represented in golf's main demographic (white men) don't watch golf—not because it doesn't have drama or jerk-narcissists (see: Tiger Woods), but because golf, more than any other sport, feels like an extension of the old-boys network. Like you need a cigar and a tumbler to even qualify for a set of clubs. I guess you were joking, Patrick, about golf actually having male posturing, but I'd argue that it really does. It's built into the sport; it's in the exact discourse that's been used in this roundtable. This game wants so badly to remain a gentleman's sport (to varying degrees, of course, as St. Andrews makes clear) and so badly to represent a century-old trah-dition of the game. Hampton, I appreciate what you're saying, and I agree with a lot of your points, but I think the dialogue about restoring and maintaining "dignity," "ancient values," and "humility" is just as complicated as demanding that golfers talk more shit to one another. It's the Good Men Syndrome. Look for it in every article about a baseball player that Sports Illustrated has had on its cover since 2005. Golf is very polite and well-dressed, but that's not really its problem.

–Emma

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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