PGA Tour players’ news conferences are rarely fertile ground for philosophical treatises, but even by that low standard, Bubba Watson managed to generate a veritable bingo card of nonsense in which no box was left unchecked.
Watson was speaking at the QBE Shootout, whose name has gone off-brand since its host, Greg Norman, joined a dictatorship that likes bonesaws to bullets (the “QBE Dismemberment” would be a tough sell in the hotel industry). The two-time Masters champion—Watson, not Norman—was expressing his intention to compete in the Saudi International in February. Bubba offered as cheery and diversified an explanation as seems imaginable from a man abetting the normalization of a brutal government, more out of credulity than chicanery, I suspect.
He highlighted his love of travel (a surprise to many who recall his previously expressed disinterest in France and the British Isles), Saudi funding for women’s golf, aiding regional tourism, gorgeous beaches, a desire to see God’s (not their) creation, and charity.
He stated honestly of his hosts, “They’re trying to change.” He went on to say that it was all about “trying to grow the game.”
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There must have been a time when the phrase “grow the game” conveyed honesty and authenticity, back when motivations were pure and aims were lofty. There may be certain cases when this is still the case, but they are rare. “Grow the game” has devolved into a one-size-fits-all platitude devoid of actual meaning, used instead to market a product and, increasingly, to justify unjustifiable financial gain.
Consider some of the reasons for which “expand the game” has been mobilized: sports betting, technology, the Olympics, equipment advancements, shorter courses, longer drives, more unusual formats, snazzier gear, made-for-TV dullness, social media sniping, diversity and inclusion. It’s the worn-out tagline of first resort, from the First Tee to Topgolf to Top Tracer.
People usually mean “expand the game” when they say “increase revenue,” and they always mean their own revenue. It’s critical to understand the context. It ensures that anyone who dismisses “expand the game” as marketing nonsense will be chastised for their negativity, and it persuades others to spew the same crap in case their revenue necessitates this flimsy cloak of grandeur one day.
When Watson and his colleagues arrive at King Abdullah Economic City for the Saudi International, pending PGA Tour approval, what has been a continuous stream of insincerity about promoting golf will erupt into a tsunami. It promises to be a week in which professional golfers enthusiastically drool about “developing the game” while evading questions about their patrons’ human rights abuses. Norman, ever the trailblazer, has been hard at work blazing a trail for others who will follow.
The Great White Pilot Fish addressed gender issues in comments to Golf Digest after recently comparing America’s historical record of racism with the crimes currently being committed by his business.
“Women’s rights issues—I’ve been so impressed with the women there now,” he remarked. “When you walk into a restaurant, you see women. They aren’t dressed in burkas.”
Norman went on to say that anyone who hasn’t seen things for themselves can’t criticize the Saudi regime, an evidentiary standard that, one assumes, would have silenced contemporary Nazi genocide critics who hadn’t personally toured Auschwitz. He went on to say that he has been coming to Saudi Arabia on fact-finding missions for three years, since the regime contracted him to build a golf course.
Norman’s willingness to abase himself is distressing, but it’s expected that his every remark in defense of his humiliation is filled with the all-too-familiar platitude. “I’ve always wanted to help grow golf on a worldwide scale.” “Always, always,” he stated emphatically.
Self-respecting people should abstain from using it simply because of this association. If you need a catch-all phrase, consider “Better the Game,” a more personal and granular aim that hasn’t yet been tainted by gasbags and geopolitics. One approach to improve this game is to avoid enlisting it in a heinous attempt to repair the image of a repressive regime.
If the Saudi International is to bring one positive change to golf, let it be the week that the dreadful cliché about “expanding the game” dies, although in shame.
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