Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) discuss the recent dust-up involving Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, and a bizarre remark about fried chicken.
Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia have never liked each other very much. This week, though, their tiff got weird.
It started a few weeks ago, back at the PGA's Players Championship. Garcia complained about being distracted on the course, saying that Woods selected a club during Garcia's backswing. That alone would be a dire breach of golf's weird, kabuki-like and all-important gentlemanly code.
But this is Tiger Woods we are talking about. Fans on tour will cheer Tiger for burping. The act of selecting a club is always enough to prompt applause. It's fairly absurd.
Did Woods pull the club and distract Garcia? If so, was it on purpose? Despite investigative reporting to rival Woodward and Bernstein, no one seems to have the slightest clue. Nevertheless, the two have been vaguely insulting each other through the media ever since.
All in good fun, until this week. Garcia was on stage during the European Tour Players' Awards dinner. A reporter clearly looking to stir up a story asked Garcia asked if he planned to have Woods for dinner. Garcia said he would have Woods over every night and serve fried chicken.
It was creepy and strangely echoed Fuzzy Zoeller's similarly racist comments way back in 1997, when Tiger stormed to his historic first Masters win. Garcia, of course, has apologized a few times times now—online and before an assembled media throng.
Guys, how bad was Sergio's remark? Can he be excused? Spanish fans do have a rich history of racism, casually tossing out vicious taunts. Garcia might have grown up just not knowing any better. Now he does. It's also clear this rivalry is better off the links.
Woods, it seems, will never have a real rival. Sam Snead had his Ben Hogan. Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus had Tom Watson. Bird had his Magic. Not Tiger. Beyond a few seasons from Phil Mickelson, Woods has never had a rival worthy of his talent. The guy's best fights have been with his wife and caddies.
The other question if this kind of public sniping is good for the PGA—sans the racism, obviously.
Part of me wants the tour to get with the 21 century, to self-promote by encouraging just this sort of Twitter trash-talk rivalry. (Again, that's with nobody channeling the KKK.) The secret moralist in me, though, cries at the ugliness of our graceless age and longs for golf at least to remain a silent, stodgy bastion of reserve.
Jake, Patrick, give me your take on the Fried Chicken Incident and the future of golf.
All good questions, Hampton. Let's take 'em one at a time.
— No, Sergio should not be excused for saying he would serve fried chicken if a black man—in this case, Tiger—came over to his house. Racist or not, Sergio's undeniably a moronic, underachieving whiner who's come up short in every big tournament in his career and is best left alone to cry in the corner.
— Tiger's never really had a rival, not even when Phil Mickelson was winning three of eight majors from 2004-2006. Mickelson has never beaten Tiger down the stretch in a major, and David Duval and Vijay Singh didn't either. We can only hope that Rory McIlroy capitalizes on his vast potential and becomes a worthy foil to Tiger for the next few years.
— Public sniping in general is bad for golf, and not only because it comes off as a lame attempt to attract eyeballs and Page Six headlines. Simply put, golf sucks at scandals, at least ones that don't involve Ambien, broken car windows, and Perkins hostesses. They are invariably nastier and pettier than their counterparts in other sports and often devolve into inappropriate, even racist invective. Take Sergio flipping off the gallery at Bethpage on Long Island during the 2002 U.S. Open after the fans ragged his endless pre-shot waggles, then moaning at a post-second round news conference that the conditions would have been poor enough to stop play had Tiger been on the course. Or the Zoeller incident, which went from "amusing" to "uncomfortable" to "blatantly racist" in about five seconds. The best "scandals" from golf's last 15 years have come when golf peons (Stephen Ames, Rory Sabbatini) have challenged Tiger's ability and then been blown away on the course. Honestly, "9-and-8" is the best controversy-related line uttered in the last decade of golf (Tiger's off-course dalliances notwithstanding).
The recent defamation suit against the PGA Tour filed by Singh—he of the Tiger Who? mini-scandal—is a classic example of a scandal done badly. Singh sued after PGA Tour officials botched a test of the Fijian golfer for using deer antler spray, but legal experts have said he has no chance of prevailing. As ESPN's Lester Munson put it, "As he continues with his career, instead of mentions of his 34 Tour wins including three majors, he will now face in media accounts and in the galleries routine use of the adjective 'litigious' and the embarrassing phrase 'deer antler spray.'"
Until golf can do better than "deer antler spray lawsuit" and "fried chicken racist," it should keep its scandals as tamped down as possible. Got a different take, Patrick?
Hampton, what's your take on this?
Before delving into Tiger v. Sergio, a few words about fried chicken. It's delicious. Delicious hot. Delicious cold. Delicious from franchise fast food joints and hipster localvore gastopubs, from grandma's kitchen and from convenience store heat-lamp displays. ESPN's Bomani Jones has things exactly right: fried chicken should unite us, not divide us. Black, white, whatever—our tongues are all pink.
(And man, am I suddenly hungry).
Anyway, the controversy. Garcia deserves to be shamed. No question about it. He was being an ass. Which, frankly, seems to come naturally to him. You know how you can tell that Garcia was out of line? He made Woods—the dullest, least likable celebrity marketing cipher this side of Kim Kardashian—seem sympathetic. Like a victim. At the very least, Garcia's fried chicken crack was stupid. It was the piece de resistance of a whole bunch of stupid between the two golfers, a catty, passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, he said what?!? tit-for-tat that has played out for weeks on "Pardon the Interruption" and elsewhere; an unstoppable avalanche of stupid that is still going on, with European Tour CEO George O'Grady defending Garcia by saying that "most of Sergio's friends are colored athletes in the United States."
O'Grady subsequently apologized for using the term "colored." He did not backtrack from playing the "but some of my best friends are black!" card, which has only been the subject of standup comedy ridicule for, oh, four decades. Like I said, the avalanche keeps rushing downhill. And unlike you, Jake, I kind of love it. Golf doesn't need less public sniping. Golf needs more. Golf needs more pettiness, more mouthing off, more rinky-dink disrespect, more ¿quién es mas macho?, more TMZ-ness. Golf needs a garrulous Rex Ryan. A dysfunctional New York Jets. A dithering Dwight Howard. A villainous Nick Saban. It needs to embrace the obvious: half the fun in following sports—more than half, actually—doesn't come from the sports themselves. It comes from the swirling male soap operas around them.
Jake, you note that golf sucks at scandals. I agree. But that's only because golf is obsessed with rules, decorum, order and selling corporate-minded old white men (and everyone who aspires to become those guys) a comforting, fabulistic vision of a world that doesn't actually exist, complete with somnambulant commentary from Jim Nantz. (See also: The Masters.) If the sport ever wants to expand beyond its niche audience—lucrative, yes, but still niche—it needs to attract casual fans. People who don't care about golf, but who might care about particular golfers if said golfers give them something recognizably human to care about. There's a reason Woods's tabloid-spectacular sexcapade meltdown resonated with the public in a way that Tiger Woods, buffed-edge symbol of bland performance excellence never did. The latter is a good way to advertise a management consulting firm to mid-tier executives sipping cocktails in the first-class cabin, trying to find meaning and affirmation in the pages of a SkyMall catalog; the former is a good way to interest the rest of us in line at the supermarket, looking to have fun, pass time, get outraged, feel something.
Look, the whole hook of sports fandom—the whole hook to following anything in today's over-saturated attention economy—is emotional engagement. Wins and losses provide that. Extracurriculars provide that and then some. NBC has built its popular Olympic coverage around soft-focus personality features; ESPN has built an entire media empire around live sports augmented by an endless stream of argumentative, provocative jibber-jabber; the reality TV boom of the last decade—of ginned-up competition—is essentially the triumph of sports-style programming for people who don't like actual sports. The Tiger-Sergio affair brings golf one step closer to professional wresting. And that's a good thing. Short of Jack Nicklaus emerging from the clubhouse with a metal folding chair as Tiger lines up a major-winning putt attempt, the sport really can't ask for more.