Golf Rivalries and Hate Politics: Never Meant to be Together

Name the sport – if you’re a fan, it represents, to some degree, an escape from the world’s tribal hostilities. In its most militant sense, it is war softened to hard-nosed competition. Even better, it’s an appreciation of the game – whatever game, and the appreciation for those who play it, especially the ones from your side. Your favorite sport is designed to not only entertain you, but to steer you out of the journalistic venom and international ignorance shared by all human societies, for just a little while. Your sport is your avenue of rejuvenation, your recharge in preparation for the new week – competition interlaced with good will.

Ideological rivalries can’t help but spill over into individual and team competition from time to time, but in the game of golf, things have gotten out of hand as we drop the niceties that once governed the outward behavior of the game.  In terms of the U.S. and Europe, especially with the UK and Ireland, you’d swear that someone just dumped tea in the harbor and armed the bridges of Lexington and Concord.

Sam Snead didn’t help when he described St. Andrews as real estate you couldn’t give away, and Scott Hoch put the exclamation point on the insult – “The worst piece of….I’ve ever played.” American tendencies toward overt forms of behavior (was that subtle enough?) has offended at the Ryder Cup, and fans sometimes let nationalism trump their appreciation for good golf. In general, we have underestimated the European tour, and have not always been at our most charitable regarding the influx of Asian players.

But the Brits? Come on, that was so long ago. Tiger Woods seems a favorite target for anti-American comments. Even non-scandalous casual conversation such as Luke Donald’s “talent” comparisons between Tiger and Rory are fodder for instant ignition. This is perfectly acceptable golf analysis on the surface, not personally offensive, but is there a special pleasure behind the remark? Greg Norman believes that Tiger “lacks the street smarts” to win back his life and level of game, and one can hardly help but hear a hint of glee between the lines.

Paul Casey put his foot in it with the difficult to misinterpret comment, “I hate Americans,” going on to describe them as “stupid” and “annoying.” I can think of numerous cases where I would agree with Mr. Casey, but have also met my share around the world. Stupidity and annoyance are generally border-free. Maybe it’s a human thing. Titleist dropped Casey for the remark, and Casey made it worse, finally stopping himself short in an interview – “I kept digging, didn’t I?”

The view has been expressed that Americans don’t play ‘real’ golf, because American courses are too manicured – good shots are rewarded and bad ones are penalized. Once a year, the glories of links golf are extolled at The Open (It has to be called the Open, because it was the first, and there aren’t any others, no matter what anyone says), but a lot of Americans have won there, so just…well, I won’t say it. Between inappropriate behavior and exaggerated retorts (Scott Verplank – “If he’s {Casey} really that uncomfortable or annoyed, I don’t think anyone would miss him if he went back to England”), international gripes have seeped onto the golf course in a way that surpass the spirit of competition, and the game’s not one bit better for it.

I generally root for Americans in team sports, but I’m an absolute disgrace to my family and country when it comes to the Olympics, where I hone in on individual stories and efforts. I sat in the company of New Englanders and shamelessly cheered for Ochsana Bayul over the favorite daughter. I stood and raised my arms in triumph for Eddy the Eagle, and I’ve bellowed on behalf of more Canadian athletes than I can remember. Gary Player was my all-time golf idol growing up, and I remain a devoted admirer of Seve Ballesteros. I guess that the point is this – wherever our affections take us in sports, we are humans living the privilege of competing against and with one another. We’re all so lucky to be on a golf course at all, considering the millions of lesser alternatives, that we ought to put down the newspaper, turn off cable news and enjoy being fans and rivals for a few hours before it’s Monday morning again.

After all, even Arnie and Jack get together and talk about fly fishing once in a while. I certainly am glad that King George isn’t still on the throne. We’d all be making a much bigger deal out of all this, and the rivalry could get out of hand.

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