As we close the books on 2021, it appears certain that a few of the year’s most notable events will have an impact that goes far beyond the calendar.
Like Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters victory, which has the potential to inspire a new generation of Asian golfers. Or Phil Mickelson’s unlikely major tournament victory at the age of 50, which set a new standard for senior greatness. Or Tiger Woods’ automobile accident, which brought home the impermanence of lives and careers and evoked a deep appreciation for both what he has given us and what his battered body will allow him to do in the future.
But 2021 was also a year in which even the most obstinate ostriches had to admit that golf does not exist in a vacuum, that it, like every sport, is inexorably linked to the rest of the world, and that reminders of this fact are frequently jarring. The hard lessons we learnt in ’21 will not be forgotten just because December has passed.
Then there was the issue of language. When Justin Thomas missed a short putt in Maui on the first day of the year, he berated himself with a homophobic slur. His answer was swift—he took responsibility and apologized profusely—but the groups that rallied around the scandal were even faster, with one too willing to proclaim it a capital offense and the other scornfully eager to dismiss any hurt as mere political correctness. The heinous incident served as a reminder that the speech and conduct norms sought by today’s firms and customers (a completely flexible measure) also apply to this most hidebound of sports.
The PGA Tour had to face its new reality a few weeks later, even though the organization shows no signs of understanding the significance of what transpired that Sunday afternoon at Torrey Pines. On his route to winning the Farmers Insurance Open, Patrick Reed acted as his own rules official, lifting a ball he claimed was embedded before a genuine rules official could arrive to render a ruling. Because the video footage was inconclusive but far from exculpatory, PointsBet, the Tour’s official gaming partner, reimbursed bets.
The Tour’s forgiving approach toward questionable on-course behaviour by its players, long epitomized by the now-departed rules boss Slugger White, the Mrs. Doubtfire of the nanny state, is at odds with the scrutiny that comes with regulated sports betting. A claim that the persons involved are gentlemen, or a reliance on clever verbiage concerning purpose, is no defense against punters who believe video proof proves otherwise. When it happens again, as it will, the Tour will be dreadfully unprepared for the ensuing inferno. Reed’s ball drop will have far-reaching consequences that will outlast the other ball drop in Times Square next week.
There was also a reckoning with golf’s shady past. Lee Elder’s appearance at the Masters’ ceremonial tee shot was as close to an apology as Augusta National will ever get. Even Elder’s lone moment on the tee was sullied by Wayne Player, an opportunistic waster who, unlike Elder, owed his seat on the tee purely to parental indulgence and inheritance.
Elder’s death seven months later served as a somber reminder of how little actual redress he received for his ordeal, and how few plaudits he received for his achievements. There were lots of tributes, but words are cheap. Elder died without being recognized by the World Golf Hall of Fame, the Memorial Tournament, or any of the other self-congratulatory entities that are always bragging about how far golf has progressed.
With Elder’s departure, his legacy—that it is vital to take a moral position against those who degrade others—becomes even more significant. It’s at the heart of golf’s confrontation with its future, which began well before 2021 and will very likely continue into 2022 and beyond.
With the Saudi Arabian government’s attempt to hijack professional golf this year, one thing has changed. They hired Greg Norman as a front guy, who spouts meaningless verbiage and false equivalencies as freely as his boss fires missiles at Yemeni civilians. But two things haven’t changed: the projected Super Golf League has yet to sign any players, and the scheme’s sole purpose remains to normalize the image of a regime that disregards human rights.
In 2022 and beyond, the reckoning will continue. The specter has enviable staying power thanks to oil. The Saudis are, if nothing else, a reminder that the ideals on which golf prides itself—integrity, honor, and respectability—are not unchangeable, and must be maintained against charlatans and chiselers, some of whom are PGA Tour card-carrying members.
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