When I saw Phil Mickelson trot after his missed putt to whack his still moving ball back toward the hole I quickly moved from “oh shit” to “oh….shit.” My initial entertained surprise was quickly replaced with foreshadowed dread when I realized the ramifications this would bring. Sure enough, before Phil’s ball had even left his putter Joe Buck flexed those two semesters of literature he took in college by giving us his best Hawthorne impression in describing what was taking place. Simultaneously, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger, both of whom played with Mickelson, spoke with the same disbelief and anger one would assume they would feel had Phil just taken the pin flag and impaled a spectator with it. For the rest of the coverage the commentators on the network that thus far provided abysmal at best coverage accosted, accused, convicted, and sentenced Mickelson of crimes ranging from malicious ignorance to outright premeditated vandalism upon the game of golf.
But Fox wasn’t alone. Across all golf media at least one pundit reacted to Mickelson’s action the way I can only imagine sportswriters must have when they learned about Pete Rose’s gambling. I’m actually surprised no one made that analogy (there’s still time, don’t worry). So many people believed Phil to be guilty of some egregious violation of the existence of golf, of soiling the porcelain throne on which the game sits. Never mind the fact that all of this occurred on a golf course that was quite literally blowing away in the summer wind. No, the frustrated actions of a nearly four dozen time champion are what truly wretched the game of golf, what flung it from atop its place in the pantheon of the purest of sports.
Phil Mickelson’s actions today won’t be felt by anyone but the stiff collared purist hardo elitists doing their best to insure golf goes extinct in my lifetime. No one outside of the cryptkeepers over at the USGA or the ham handed #journos trying to leech some relevancy off this with their week old takes care what Phil did. I found it entertaining, but, despite Joe Buck’s insistence, Phil’s reputation with me did not “take a hit.” Whose reputation did take a hit was Fox News, the USGA, and every single one of the media outlets who leapt at the opportunity to predict Phil’s rules violation as one of the Four Horsemen of golf’s apocalypse. For years they’ve ignored larger, much more detrimental trends in the game like user hostile coverage, confusing and unwelcoming rules, and an elitist and even discriminatory attitude from the governing bodies.
Each week the host channel boasts of the amount of coverage provided, how close spectators will feel to the action regardless of whether they’re hanging over the ropes or peering at a phone screen. Come tournament time, the “coverage,” we’re subjected to is the same. “Featured” groups firing middling scores monopolize camera time while first time amateurs posting the rounds of their life or outside the top 10 competitors moving double digit slots up the leaderboard go unnoticed. And the soundtrack for all this? Former tour players providing confusing commentary irrelevant to whatever the camera is focused on while belligerent spectators shriek various phrases into the mic before the players even make contact with their ball. No one’s commented on what this is doing to the game. No one mentions that even devoted fans are unsatisfied with the way tournaments are covered. How can we expect to attract an entire generation of new participants if when they try to watch golf their option is to either watch someone they’ve never heard of fire an over par round or login to the PGA app and pay a fee for three holes of coverage?
Should a budding golfer not be discouraged by nonexistent coverage of the sport they’ve got a cryptic rulebook written like an encyclopedia to help them navigate their way around the course. Unlike most sports where the rules are finite and navigable, i.e., one rule precedes the next and so forth, golf’s rulebook portrays its necessity as existing solely in the name of fairness, yet until one reaches a certain skill level they find themselves pigeonholed into a sect of the game they’ll possibly never escape and often barred from seeing the full course they’ve paid to use. There exists no beginner’s caveats or exceptions, just an iron barred space that to a newly sprung golfer encourages nothing but intimidation and discouragement. Does the USGA care? Hardly. They’re more worried about what one five time major champion is doing than the millions of amateur golfers that participate in their sport each year. They’ve got to focus on “fairness,” on the “spirit of play,” and “honor of the game,” while in the meantime potential new golfers are turned away from playing every day because they perceive the game as too complicated and cumbersome to navigate as a beginner.
Which brings me to my last point. The attitude of the governing bodies of golf has never matched their message. Sure, recently we’ve seen campaigns such as “play 9,” or “tee it forward,” but it’s all too little too late after the powers that be have finally had to force themselves to acknowledge the fact participation the sport is free-falling. Yet rather than take initiatives that might actually incentivize and attract new participants such as emphasizing the difference between recreational and professional golf, encouraging more beginner and spectator friendly TV coverage, or even lessening the stuffiness of the atmosphere on tour by doing something as simple as giving tour players the option of wearing shorts (I mean for God sake, this is 2018, I think we can all handle the notion of a professional athlete competing in their respective event in shorts,) the USGA and R&A have chosen to spend their resources on nonsensical ventures like distance statistics gathering. Seriously, your sport is having trouble attracting new participants and you think you need to rollback the technology that sport uses to make it harder? I mean are they trying to sink the ship?
Ultimately, the theme of Phil’s putt is control. He wrested a fraction of control of his tournament play out of the grasp of the USGA by leaping through a loophole in their rulebook that, let’s be honest, is designed solely to keep control of play out of the hands of the golfer, no matter their skill. The announcers, #journos, and pretty much anyone with a brain capable of forming an opinion (including myself, yes, I see the hypocrisy here,) tried to get control of the narrative of the story as quickly as they could so they could be the first ones to deliver their very own “the president has been shot,” moment. Last, and most importantly, we the spectators need to decide how we’re going to let this event control our perspective of the game. If you choose to look at what happened today as a once storied competitor’s fall from grace to disgraced abuse and manipulation of the game then you’re playing right into the wishes of the USGA to maintain their dictatorship over the game. You’re allowing the media to continue to fool themselves over the amount of control they have over the public perception by helping their egos maintain it’s they and they alone who decide how you think. But if you break that, if you take control of the sport and of the event for yourself you reject the USGA’s monopoly over gameplay. You demand a separation of standard for professional and recreational golf. You refuse the current programming coverage the media provides and send the message that during golf’s major championships, when the likelihood of catching a casual fan is higher than ever, the focus should be on golf, good golf that highlights the attraction to playing this game. Stop wasting airtime on rules decisions and players firing high scores and start showing the best each tournament has to offer. Last, you cement the truth that at the end of the day golf should be fun, regardless of whether you’re playing for $1 or $1 million, and that sometimes, when golf isn’t fun, it’s okay to get a little mad at it. See you on the tee.